WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Paul, it’s really great to get to talk to you about your new book, Bindi. I was discouraged at first, and want to clarify for all potential readers—it is considered an uplifting,sometimes heart-warming book, but definitely not in a bad way. I was convinced this description would mean there would be little substance or depth to your novel, or perhaps your book would be too overwhelmingly optimistic in a way that might be disappointing. Bindi does anything but disappoint. It does stir one’s emotions and pull at your heartstrings but only in the best way. How did you come up with the idea for Bindi, and how did you approach it—character or story first, and how long did this novel take to develop before you finally presented it in its final form?
Paul Matthew Maisano: I certainly understand your concern. Messages of hope in literary fiction are a tricky business. But then I remind myself that hope, more often than not, is a response to longing and despair. I couldn’t have had one without the other. In terms of the initial idea that would become this novel, it’s hard to separate the roles that character and story played in its inception. The novel is told from four perspectives, but it would be fair to say that only two, Birendra’s adoptive family, came to me relatively fully formed. I was initially focused on the relationship between siblings who had grown apart as adults, despite clinging together and caring for one another as children in a broken and loveless home. Over the course of the five years I spent writing Bindi, my initial focus broadened and finally shifted primarily to Birendra, the boy at the heart of the novel.
MT: Was Bindi always meant to help the reader emote to such a degree? There are clearly some pretty intense moments in this book, filled with all sorts of feelings of loss and joy, and I wonder if you always intended it to be this way, and how you approached Bindi as a book that would arouse all of these emotions in the reader without being too saccharine or—well, for lack of a better word, “cheesy.”
PMM: I honestly cannot say that I set out to help the reader emote. In my experience, trying to create a family, whether chosen or born into, is a painful and joyful endeavor. I don’t know that I could have written this family differently. That the book had this effect on you is deeply gratifying. There will no doubt be those who do it find it “saccharine.” Some people thrive on despair. Many people are suspicious of hope and wear cynicism as a guard against being hurt and disappointed, as if that’s possible. Bindi may not be a favorite novel among cynics, but I can’t say if that makes it an important novel for them and others or not.
MT: What was the experience like, entering so many different viewpoints and people, some probably similar to you but others probably so far off and different from you entirely? How do you feel you’ve learned to embrace characters who are incredibly different from
you, and why do you feel it’s so important for writers to do so?
PMM: When it became clear that I would have to write from the perspective of Indian characters in order to tell this story, I was naturally apprehensive. Would I be sensitive enough? Would I get every detail right? Would they be believable? A concern that students occasionally bring up in the workshop environment is who has the right to write certain characters. To me this is ultimately well-intentioned but facile thinking. There will always be detractors, but I think some people forget that we would have almost no literature and probably no literacy at all if writers hadn’t begun writing beyond their experiences. Imagine the implications of that. In the end, I realized that all I could do was treat the characters the same: with love and compassion, with openness. Whether you like your characters or not, whether they are of primary importance to the story or not, whether their lives resemble the author’s life or not, all characters must be respected and treated as whole, complex beings with emotional lives even an author can’t possibly access entirely.
MT: How did you get your start as a writer? At what age, or what major life event, if any, led you to believe and understand “I am a writer”? How was your journey through life with writing, including being in a prestigious MFA program?
PMM: As a sophomore in high school, I went through a rebellious phase and had a particularly antagonistic relationship with an English teacher. One time I turned in a short story instead of the essay that had been assigned to us. I can’t recall if she gave me credit for it or not, but she encouraged me to keep writing fiction. And I have, though it was another fifteen years at least before I began to allow myself to think of writing as a viable career path. I left a “career” in 2007, along with the United States, and I went travelling for four years. By the end, I’d decided to return home to join a community of writers and receive an MFA in fiction.
MT: MFA programs are becoming more and more frequent these days, and we see more and more that it’s almost impossible to be published sometimes without an MFA, especially when writing certain genres. How do you approach the importance of an MFA program, and do you think it’s necessary for every writer, or is each writer different? What advice do you give aspiring writers?
PMM: I’ve actually been to two MFA programs. The first was not particularly well funded, but it was close to the beach, which appealed to me after my travels, which frequently brought me beaches and islands throughout the Mediterranean, Asia, and New Zealand. After my first semester, however, I struggled to convince myself that an MFA was worth accruing any debt, despite the valuable support of faculty and fellow students. So my first advice is to think long and hard about getting into debt. After all, it’s not a professional degree, and it offers no guarantees. As I was unwilling to get further in debt, I ended up working nearly full-time. This defeated the purpose of the MFA, which, in my opinion, is primarily to give writers the gift of time to write and think about writing. I applied to transfer and was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was guaranteed tuition remission and a stipend during my time there. I can’t say what’s necessary for every writer, but I certainly acknowledge how instrumental my time in Iowa was to completing and ultimately publishing Bindi.
MT: What are the books that have enabled you to write a book like Bindi? Obviously books by Asian writers should be listed here, but would you mind listing all of your favorite influences, from youth until now? What authors and books do you return to again and again, for form or inspiration or something else?
PMM: I’ve always struggled with this question, which is so similar to another that asks me to compare myself with other writers. It’s not that I think I’m so unique, it’s simply that, when I’m writing, the last thing I’m thinking about is what other writers would do or have done. I’m undoubtedly influenced and this may be evident to some in my style of writing, but it is not conscious. I think I’ve always been an emotional reader, which is to say that what sticks with me is the feeling of reading or having read a book. I may not remember plot details or character names, but I remember how it felt to move through the pages. The first time I lost myself completely to a fictional world on my own I was eight. I was in my elementary school library and found The Boxcar Children series on one of the shelves. I sat down in the aisle, opened the first book, and found the scent of the pages intoxicating. And then the story swept me up. Is it therefore meaningful that my first novel is about an eight-year old orphan? Perhaps. Since then, I’ve learned there are many ways to be swept up by fictional worlds. A few of my favorite reading experiences (of novels) to date have been: Midnight’s Children; Another Country; The Idiot; Sons and Lovers; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Black Boy; Good Morning, Midnight; The City of Your Final Destination; The Mandarins; Pride and Prejudice; Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Humboldt’s Gift; Lady Chatterly’s Lover; Laughter in the Dark; To the Lighthouse. This last book is probably the one I’ve returned to most often. I think it’s brilliant, bold, and beautiful. With her tale of the Ramsays, and particularly Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf gave us a great gift. Each time I read it, I find myself transported utterly and surprised at every turn, as though the story weren’t entirely familiar to me.
MT: The roles of parenthood and ownership are very important and clear in the pages of Bindi. Why did you choose to write about this topic in specific at this point in time, and why is it so important to talk about it now?
PMM: I think the story came to me as it did because there was no clear answer to any one of the questions I wanted to explore. It seems to me that we do claim our relatives, some to a greater degree than others, and this can lead to the purest love or the most devastating betrayal, as well as everything in between. In the case of parents, the question I posed is whether or not there is a way for siblings to love and support each other beyond the psychic wreckage of their shared nuclear family? And if not, as adults, what happens when one sibling acts in a way that the other finds hopelessly unforgivable, especially if it’s reminiscent of one or both of the parents? In terms of one’s right to be a parent, no matter the circumstances leading to that chosen role, I turned the question on myself and my characters: who has the right to decide the fate of a child, to deem a potential mother’s love worthy or unworthy, to judge an orphan’s adoptive home “right” or “wrong”? The answer was always that it’s complicated, we’re humans, and we can only do our best and encourage each other to be better.
MT: I love asking mostly every author I get the chance to interview that old quote that is attributed to so many authors, most frequently Toni Morrison, about how you should write the book you’ve always wanted to read but never found. Do you feel in Bindi you have written that book, or is that book still to come for you?
PMM: There are so many novels I still look forward to reading. For me, reading and writing are very different acts, but they are both rooted in the desire to connect with others at the deepest possible level. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’ve always assumed Toni Morrison was addressing the glaring absence of opportunities for readers and writers of color to engage in this great gift of literature.
MT: What was the most difficult aspect about publishing your first book? Did you ever feel you should have written something “safer,” and did you ever feel that you needed to compromise your vision in order to see your work published?
PMM: I’ve tried not to question the story I wanted to tell, which is not to say there haven’t been many times I was worried I wouldn’t succeed. Perhaps the biggest risk was committing to a message of hope, despite the loss and longing that the characters experience. But this, too, became essential to the book, and to me, in the years leading up to its publication. I was fortunate in that this aspect was never questioned by my editor.
MT: What do you hope that readers will take away from this book? In fact—to take from numerous other interviews with famous writers, a favorite question of mine too—if you were to give the president this book and, just assuming, he actually read it, what would you hope he’d
take away from Bindi? What other book would you give him by another author and what would you hope the president—or, again, anyone—might take away from the book?
PMM: I suppose I’d like readers to come away recognizing how complicated things really are, even as we try to simplify our lives, and that the tendency we have to make snap judgments about people, their actions, and their intentions is never going to be fair. So little in our world is black or white, right or wrong, one way or the other. We have to be willing to get a little uncomfortable, especially those of us who’ve grown up privileged in one way or another, in order to discover the transformative power of compassion. That being said, I think there are some people beyond humanity’s reach, and I guess Trump is one of them. I wish I believed he was capable of reading a novel, let alone benefiting from its message, but I don’t. In any case, I think everyone should be reading Baldwin right now. He was one of our greatest minds and his essays and fiction, though written sixty years ago, are as essential and compelling today as they always have been. If I had to choose one book, being a novelist, it would probably be Another Country.
MT: What do you think is the most important role of the writer in this time in history? Which writers, including or excluding yourself, are exhibiting these traits or acting out this role best, and where do you see the role of books and writing heading as our world continues to grow and change, for better or worse?
PMM: I think a writer’s most important role is to communicate in earnest. As I said, we need to complicate not simplify our understanding of the world and people in it. Writers must make that effort, too, and hopefully we succeed in casting light upon the challenge in a way that offers even the least amount of guidance. I’m an optimist, out of necessity. I have to believe that books will continue to provide refuge for writers and readers. I’d like to believe that there is room for messages of hope in literature, as well as tales of despair.
MT: What was the hardest part of writing Bindi? Did you ever find yourself wondering if you could actually complete the novel? Was there a specific part of the writing process—whether a specific chapter, or a kind of rewrite, anything really—that nearly stopped you from letting Bindi see the light of day?
PMM: I began writing the novel as both an escape from the growing disillusionment I felt about the world around me and an outlet for the cynic within. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that cynicism became a way of guarding against a life of despair. What began as a semi-satirical novel had to transform over time into something else, something compassionate, tolerant, and as non-political as possible. There were times when it felt my novel was kicking me out, and what I discovered was that it was the lingering veneer of satire that was being rejected by my characters and the novel itself. I had to find compassion for characters whose actions I personally found unforgivable. I had to learn to love them as people even if I couldn’t respect their behavior. I think what helped me get through it was the simple fact that I was writing a novel about family. The struggle to overcome these mixed feelings where family is concerned, especially in these increasingly partisan times, is quite common and demands our attention, as well as our patient persistence.
MT: What is the next book or work we can expect from Paul Matthew Maisano? Are you already developing a work-in-progress or are you taking a break, touring your book and the like? What can fans of Bindi expect from you next?
PMM: I have three very different projects in mind. I’ll soon be settled enough to learn which story captures my full attention. Until I know more, I hesitate to say what to expect.
MT: Paul, I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by Writers Tell All and answer some questions and really get fans excited about your work. I wish you the best and hope you will give us the chance to work with you again in the future. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, suggestions, questions, and the like. And thank you again.
PMM: I’m so grateful for the opportunity, and especially for your thoughtful and engaging questions. Thanks so much for reading.
Lydia Millet Has Stopped by to Talk About Her Career as One of America's Most Important and Diverse (and INTERESTING) Writers--Here We Go:
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lydia, I am so happy to finally get the chance to interview you for Writers Tell All. I really do love your work, and would love to start with a fairly simple question before getting into anything too heavy. I don’t know if you’d consider yourself prolific, but you certainly have written your fair share of diverse, incredibly unique and profound and critically acclaimed novels, and I’m wondering: how do you manage to keep up the steady output? What drives you to be a novelist, how did you come to be a novelist, what was your journey like to publishing your first work, and how did you come to be as successful as you are today?
Lydia Millet: Stop, I’m blushing. I don’t think I can offer you a captivating origin story. I love reading, I love making things up, I love being caught up in a piece of writing that feels ecstatic. So when I get to do those things I’m satisfied. I’m fortunate to have a day job I love too, in conservation, and I wouldn’t want to give it up, so I have to thread those lines of work through each other. I find myself complaining about getting enough time for my books occasionally, and it’s true I don’t get enough time, but — actually this just struck me — what’s probably more true is that I don’t mind the combination. I like that act of threading.
MT: Your novels are described as often comic or heartbreaking or comic and heartbreaking, approaching many different genre tropes while remaining veryLydia Millet, each in their own right. When you’re writing a novel, do you think in terms of genre, and how do you go about plotting a novel and writing and executing any work, as well as editing and polishing this work as well?
LM: You know, I just ease into a voice and keep going. Most often without malice aforethought. I don’t think of my novels ahead of time too often, except in vague daydreams.
MT: Your novels in general are shorter, and I admire you and your novels largely because it takes a lot of talent to take a novel half as length as a similar work and pack twice the punch. What are your opinions on being concise and to the point, or whatever you believe enables you to shorten your novels in length in order to deliver an amazing experience — emotionally, mentally — to the reader?
LM: Truncated attention span, probably. It’s important, in a conversation like this, to be honest. As a reader, I can’t stand the self-indulgence of overlong books. Some writers seem to treat their novels like a drunken party where they alone get to hold forth. Which, technically, sure. A novel iskind of like that. But you have to know when to leave for the night. People suffer from windbaggery. Bloviation. They sufferfrom this. They’re not self-aware. Their big, dull books are like a fast, sparkly car purchased during some me-time that should actually stay private. I don’t want to ride in those sparkly me-cars.
MT: What are the books that initially inspired you to write, and what are the novels you continue to read today that keep your writing, new or old? For your contemporaries, who are authors in a variety of genres — literary, mystery, whatever have you — that inspire you and keep you motivated? Is there any book you come back to again and again, a favorite or more influential book?
LM: I got a lot out of Karel Capek’s War With the Newts. I still think of it, though I first read it a quarter-century ago. Its end-time, apocalyptic direness paired with the humor of the upright, humanoid, and quizzical salamanders. Also Elias Canetti’s Auto da Fe, because of the deeply detestable protagonist. For style I love Virginia Woolf and Lydia Davis, for moral rigor I like Coetzee, and even though other people say it too, I’ll never get over Thomas Bernhard.
MT: While I’ve read a good bit of your work, both novels and shorter fiction, I try to go into an interview blind as to other interviews with the authors I’m working with and what authors have already said. One question I have is: do you feel your work is considered “feminist,” and if so how do you relate this, or any other ideas or agendas you may have in your work, other than the fantastic stories you relate? What do you think — from the million possible answers — is the most important role of the writer in writing?
LM: I hope my work’s considered feminist, among other ists, but I’d be surprised if that’s the first adjective that springs to mind for most readers. I often like to look over the heads of people, into the crowd. Beyond the crowd, into the trees. Up into the atmosphere. You know? All the oppressed should be lifted up, in a world that was full of grace. Women are clearly oppressed. After the poor, the largest oppressed group in the world. Of course, those groups do tend to overlap. So lifted up would be good for allof the oppressed. But not lifted abovethe rest, and I fear aspects of liberal culture have a tendency to do that at the moment, make fetish objects of historical and contemporary victims in what’s also a tidy act of self-legitimation and self-glorification. The moral heroism of the powerful yet oh so empathic! And those self-glorifying and identity-based tendencies are boomeranging on us painfully now. Those rains are raising crops of Trumps and Ailes and Bannons out of the dead land. It’s allof us we should be worried about. It’s the structures that keep the many down and elevate the few.
And to the “most important role of the writer” — that’s a genuinely hard question. Maybe I can say interiority, the act of speaking from one private mind to another. Speaking abstractly rather than only narratively, and cerebrally as well as emotionally. Speaking of the many as well as the self, the all as well as the individual.
MT: Each of your books carry with them both your own unique voice as well as the very unique and different voices of your characters. How do you go about developing, in addition to your own individual voice, each voice of the characters you write from? How hard is it to find a character’s voice, and do you have any tricks or methods to find a way to slip into the role of a character you’re writing?
LM: I think there’s slippage between self and narrative self and character self, and though they’re distinct there are also Venn diagrams among them. I think it’s disingenuous to claim that literary voices and characters are somehow perfectly differentiable. Language slides you down a slide, and maybe there are different slides for different characters, and maybe there are whole different playgrounds…OK. That may be my most belabored metaphor yet. If I have tricks or methods, they’d consist mostly of making sure that sentences follow naturally from other sentences, and that the paragraphs that result feel like coherent gestures with consistent tones. Let sound carry you along but be careful it doesn’t seduce you completely, I think. That’s how you build a voice.
MT: Your last novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, mixes a lot of elements from different genres, including thriller to a certain extent. In thriller novels especially, although really in all genres, it’s incredibly important to keep the reader hooked. What are your tricks to keep a reader glued to the page section after section, chapter after chapter, in any work of fiction, no matter what elements of any genre it may take on?
LM: All I can do is try to keep myself intrigued and try not to waste words. Not that I haven’t wasted them in the past — there’s been some wastage for sure — but I get stingier and stingier as time goes on. That might be the best advice I could give young writers if I were asked, just, don’t bore yourself. If you’re bored by a passage you write, it’s a safe bet everyone else is even more bored.
MT: Your newest work of fiction is an absolutely brilliant collection of stories, Fight No More, which shows a vast and wide array of talent for numerous forms of storytelling — stories about different characters, different people, and all so intensely real and consuming in their own way. I’m a writer too and have always found that my biggest weakness is writing short fiction. I know the “rules,” I love a good short story myself, but I can never seem to concretely produce a solid short story myself. What are your secrets to writing great short fiction, and what do you think are some of the biggest differences in approaching the writing of short and long form fiction?
LM: Well for me short stories are a playful form. There can be heavy stuff behind them or in the margins, but I think if you approach them as moments, fragments, or even paintings or snapshots, that may be a good way to end up with something you like.
MT: I am curious — of all the stories in Fight No More, which of these stories is your favorite? I also had never thought of how complicated it was that, in addition to actually writing an amazing series of short stories, one must carefully put the stories together in a unique and important order in an effort to create the greatest collection possible. What are your secrets to writing these great stories and, in turn, organizing the stories and arranging a book so that it really works? Have you ever found yourself compiling a collection of stories and come across a favorite, amazing story that simply just won’t fit in with the collection you’re working with? If so, how do you handle this situation?
LM: Um. I don’t mind the one called “The Fall of Berlin.” And in fact I don’t mind “I Can’t Go On,” the one about the pedophile, either. I have a weakness for the sad and the sick. For this collection I was asked to write an extra story, actually, rather than get rid of one, because my agent felt one of the characters needed more time. But I have to admit in my only previous collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, I included a story that really didn’t follow from the others as a kind of P.S. Not because it was so brilliant it couldn’t be omitted, sadly, but because I like intrusions and odd men out. I like to pull in an item that doesn’t belong.
MT: Our country is certainly something of a mess currently. The leader of our country, as well as the leader of many nations around the world, is something of a train wreck. This is a popular question of many publications and has been for years, and I really think that it’s my responsibility to ask this nation’s greatest writers again and again, especially in times like these: first, what work of yours — short fiction or long — would you give the president, and what (if he did read it, if he knows how to read) would you expect or hope he would take from it? Second, if you could give him any book by any other author, what would it be, and likewise what would you hope he’d take away from it?
LM: I’m so sorry — I can’t answer that! No matter what books they were, it’d be a thankless gesture. Like giving high-heeled shoes to a goat.
MT: Piggybacking off my last question, in our nation’s time of crisis, in the place our world is currently in politically, socially, etc., what do you think is the most important role of the writer in affecting the world (if at all)? What do you hope to be the long-lasting effect of your work, other than simply fine entertainment for innumerable readers?
LM: Right now we should all be writing about extinction. Climate change and mass extinction. We should take a deep breath and just walk away from identity politics for a while, despite the many prestigious and financial inducements to push our particularist agendas. See the answer re: feminism, above. We should write about the collective. We should write about what’s disappearing and can’t ever be gotten back. What’s being destroyed. We should write about how to stop it.
MT: Do you believe, like so many other authors, that a writer does continue to get better book after book, work after work, and either way what do you feel is your best work, and what do you feel is your favorite? Which work would you like to be remembered for ten, twenty, one hundred years from now? What do you feel this work says about your career and also about you, both as a writer and a person?
LM: Depends on the writer! Some have one book in them and at best repeat it. None of us wants to be one of those, of course. For me, I’d go back and edit the sh*t out of some of my books if I could. Does that mean I’m improving? As for favorite, or whatever — I’m still attached to an early one called My Happy Life. And I also like one called Ghost Lights, the second in the trilogy that ended with Magnificence. Though critics didn’t necessarily agree.
MT: Lydia, our staff as well as, I’m sure, many of our readers and fans, are huge fans of yours as well. We would love to know: what is next for you? Do you have a work in progress, or do you avoid sticking to strict deadlines and goals as opposed to delivering a novel or collection every year or two? We would love to know anything about your next work in progress, if there is one already in the works.
LM: I just finished a book called A Children’s Bible, a novel about a group of children and teenagers in a vast summerhouse who can’t stand their parents. And then a storm comes in. A big storm comes in off the ocean.
MT: Lydia, thank you for allowing me to pick your brain for Writers Tell All. Our whole staff is very appreciative of your agreeing to be interviewed, as we all love your writing so immensely, and think it is not important on just a literary level, but on a personal and national level as well. Please feel free to leave us with any thoughts, remarks, suggestions, or questions that have been nagging you throughout the interview. Again, thank you for allowing us to interview you, Lydia, and we really appreciate the chance to get to know more about your and your work.
LM: Well. Thank you for your kindness and your lovely and thorough questions.
Matthew Turbeville: I just read your novel The Chalk Man for the first time and it was incredible. My first question is this: Where did you get your inspiration for your book, how did you come up with such an intricate plot and is the final product what initially had in mind?
C.J. Tudor: The inspiration came from a box of coloured chalks that a friend bought for my daughter’s second birthday. We spent the afternoon drawing stick figures all over the driveway. Then we went inside and forgot about them. Later that night, I opened the back door and I was confronted by all these weird chalk drawings. In the darkness, they suddenly looked incredibly sinister. I called out to my partner: ‘These chalk men look really creepy in the dark.’
I started writing the book the next day! The plot developed organically. That’s how I write. I’m not a planner. And yes, the end result is pretty much exactly what I had in mind, fortunately!
MT: On a similar note, the ending is incredible. Did you know the ending before you started the book, or at least in the beginnings of writing the book?
CJT: I knew the ending about halfway through the book. As I said, I’m not a planner. I just start writing and see where I go. But at about 150 pages, I knew what the ending needed to be, so I wrote it there and then!
MT: What books inspired your writing? The Chalk Manworks on several layers, sometimes as a mystery and sometimes as a horror novel. Would you mind listing some of your favorite crime and horror novels, as well as which books specifically helped inspire you to write The Chalk Man?
CJT: Well I’m a huge King fan, obviously. There are a few nods to Stephen King novels in The Chalk Man. I also love Michael Marshall – Spares is a one of my all-time favourites. I’ve also read pretty much every Harlan Coben novel.
MT: How many novels did you write before you landed and agent and then a publishing deal? Was The Chalk Mana quick entrance to the literary world or were there years of hard work involved?
CJT: Over a decade. So, not a quick entrance. More like loitering around for years. I wrote three novels prior to The Chalk Man and many other unfinished ones.
MT: What was your favorite part about writing this book and what were your least favorite parts about writing a book like this?
CJT: I loved reliving my 80’s childhood and also all the very creepy parts. My least favourite bit was waking at 3am convinced I would never make the plot hang together!
MT: What is your writing process like? When do you start in the day, how many hours do you write in a day or, perhaps, words? Are there days when you don’t write at all?
CJT: When I wrote The Chalk Man I was working as a dog walker, traipsing through muddy fields for up to six hours a day. And when I wasn’t doing that I was looking after my little girl. Time was limited, so I fitted the writing in whenever I could.
Now, I’m very lucky and I can write full time. I usually sit down at my desk after I’ve taken my little girl to school. I’ll write from around 9am-1pm and sometimes again in the evening. I don’t do word counts. Some days are just more productive than others. I write almost every day but I don’t beat myself up if life gets in the way.
MT: Would you ever write in another genre? Toni Morrison said write the book you’ve always wanted to read. Is that The Chalk Manor is there another book up your sleeve, or sometime in the future, that will be the “book you’ve always wanted to read”?
CJT: I can’t see myself ever writing romance! I’ve always written what I love to read. That means, dark, twisty and creepy. Book 2 is out next year. I’m editing Book 3 and have plans for 4 and 5. They are all books I would pick up from a book shop. I just hope others do too!
MT: I’ve been told to never be judgmental of the characters in my novel. Were you ever judgmental of the characters in your book? Were and are there any characters you frown upon, and characters you truly love?
CJT: I try not to be judgmental either. There was only one character I really didn’t like. But even then, I think you have to understand the character’s motivations. I actually prefer writing flawed characters. They’re always more interesting. I have a soft spot for Ed.
MT: How do you successfully combine two genres—mystery/crime and horror? Which do you feel is the most important genre in this book?
CJT: I think the mystery is the most important part. That’s what keeps people reading, keeps them guessing. But I love horror. I love chills. I think the two go hand in hand. All thrillers have to have a scary element and the best horror and ghost stories have a mystery at their heart.
MT: Would you ever write a sequel to The Chalk Man? Are there any characters that still linger with you, and if so, do they have stories you feel need to be told?
CJT: No. I wouldn’t write a sequel. But I do have plans to bring one character back in Book 4.
MT: When writing a novel with two parallel time lines, what did you do to ensure that book would be successfully executed and for you to keep your mind intact?
CJT: I wrote all of the 1986 sections first. Then I threaded in the 2016 sections. That way I knew what had formed my characters as children and it made it easier to write them as adults. The hardest part of writing in two timelines is not losing your readers and not making one timeline more interesting than the other.
MT: How did it feel to receive such high place for you book? Were there any reviews that got you down? How do you respond to both fans and critics?
CJT: Praise and glowing reviews are amazing, obviously. For someone who has had a lot of rejection and taken the long road it means a lot. Of coursenegative reviews hurt. But you have to respect all opinions – the good, the bad and the ugly!
MT: I know of many authors who find themselves or their personalities or their histories bleeding into their work. Did you ever have a chalk club? Did any parts of you bleed into the characters or their histories?
CJT: Well, the gang of friends in the book is very much based upon myself and my friends as pre-teens in the 80s. Not so much in terms of our individual characters but in terms of the stuff we did and liked. Eddie’s dark humour is mine. But I don’t project myself onto my characters. They are their own people!
MT: What lesson or idea would you want readers to take away from the book? What would you want them to understand not just about the characters and story, but concerning the way you present the world around them?
CJT: Every action has a consequence. Be kind. Never assume.
MT: Are you the type of author who listens to music while writing your books? If so, what sort of music inspires you to keep writing?
CJT: I can’t listen to music while writing as I find it too distracting. But I do find music inspires me. I’m a bit of a rock chick. I love Frank Turner, The Foo Fighters, The Killers plus I have a bit of a weakness for My Chemical Romance (even thought I am not 15)!!
MT: Do you have another book in mind or that you’re writing, and if not, will you be writing another book sometimes in the future? For fans of The Chalk Man, what books would you recommend readers who just can’t get enough?
CJT: Book 2 – The Taking of Annie Thorne - is out next year. I’m editing Book 3 which will, hopefully be out in 2020. I have Book 4 planned out and an idea I’m excited about for Book 5.
So, basically don’t read anything else - just wait for my books every year!
Recently I’ve enjoyed The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stu Turton, The Bone Collector by Luca Vesta, The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd, The Anomaly by Michael Rutger and The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J Harris (plus many more that have probably just slipped my mind!) Also, books out next year that I recommend: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing and The Last by Hannah Jameson.
MT: CJ, I want to thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to answer these questions and hope it will only encourage other people to read The Chalk Manas well. Please leave us with any comments, suggestions, thoughts, and so on.
CJT: Crumbs! Well, one thing I think it’s very important to get across is that anyone with talent and imagination can be an author. You don’t need to be educated at a certain school, you don’t need a degree, you don’t need to work in the industry or have contacts.
I left school at 16, grew up in the Midlands and was walking dogs for £10 an hour when I wrote The Chalk Man. If I can do it, anyone can.
The Question Behind the Story: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar on Writing and Understanding What Helps Us Survive Trauma
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Jennifer! It’s so nice to get to talk to you about your magnificent, epic, and extremely timely novel The Map of Salt and Stars. Before I get into the heavy hitting questions, I obviously have to ask: how did this novel come to you? Clearly it contains a serious message, but also a beautiful and intricate plot, so I’m always interested in wondering with novels like these—which came first: the message or the story? This novel focuses on so many strong themes that seem so relevant today in the world we live in—which themes did you feel most drawn to when you began writing, and were there any themes you found yourself incorporating later, perhaps even unaware? And how did it eventually develop to where it is today?
Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: For me every novel begins with a question I want to explore, and from that question comes the story. In The Map of Salt and Stars,I wanted to explore whether and how the stories we tell ourselves allow us to survive trauma and take with us the places and people we are forced to leave behind. Other themes emerged later: sisterhood, judgment, and the redefinition of home among them.
MT: You have some extremely complex characters and an incredibly complicated and compelling plot. What do you think is so important about entertaining readers in order to relate a message to them? What is the main message that you would want the reader to walk away with?
JZJ: I think of telling a story as a promise you make to the reader—that you respect them enough to tell them what they need to know. I don’t think so much about relaying a message to my readers as I do about showing them the world as it really is: the difficult things, the beautiful things, friendships, hardships, processing grief. And I want to let my characters lead us both, driving the plot because of who they are as fully fleshed-out people who grow emotionally over the course of the book.
MT: This is a human story, but it’s also a story about storytelling. Whether good or bad, true or false, what do you think are some of the most important stories Americans tell themselves, and in what significant ways do you think these stories affect our culture?
JZJ: That depends on how you define American and which community you’re talking about; Americans aren’t a monolith. America as a state, however, does tell itself certain stories—for example, the false narratives of American exceptionalism and the necessity of American imperialism, though there are many others—that do more damage than good.
MT: Speaking of stories, what are your favorite stories—novels, short story collections, epic poems, etc? When speaking of writers, who are your favorites—the ones who inspire you, the ones you turn to frequently, and especially your contemporaries, the writers who are struggling to make changes through literature in the same America or world as you?
JZJ: There are so many writers I love that it would be impossible for me to do them justice here. My favorite short story of all time is “The Archivist of Baghdad” by T.L. Khleif, which first appeared in The Normal School; it’s masterful, magical, and has one of the most adroit endings I’ve ever read. I’m inspired by lots of writers, especially emerging ones whose first books I’m anxiously awaiting (shout out, loves; you know who you are), and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Arab American writers who paved the way for the work I’m doing, particularly Rabih Alameddine, Randa Jarrar, and many others. Other big influences on my writing (and life) have been Octavia Butler, Gabriel García Márquez, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks.
MT: I usually don’t ask this question because I know it makes a lot of authors uncomfortable, but with a novel that is, directly or indirectly, as politically charged, beautifully written, and with as powerful a message as The Map of Salt and Stars, assuming you were able to deliver a copy of this book to the current president, what message would you want him to take away from this? And what book that you haven’t written yourself would you give him in the hopes of making great change in the world? Why is this book so significant?
JZJ: I wish it could be that simple, but I don’t think it is. I believe books can inspire empathy, but readers have to be ready to receive it. If someone views refugees, immigrant children, Muslims, and people of color as less than human, my book isn’t going to change their minds, because empathizing with my characters first requires an acknowledgment of their equal humanity. But I hope to reach those who are ready to listen and that they, in turn, will pass what they’ve learned along to those who are less willing to hear directly from me. Together, our voices are more powerful than we think.
MT: When plotting and outlining your books, what is your process like? This is clearly one of the most intricately and carefully plotted novels I’ve read in quite some time. How many versions of this book were written before the final copy that so many of us have read and enjoyed today?
JZJ: Like most writers, I do a number of revisions before anyone else sees the book. My process for every book is different, but with this novel I plotted both timelines together, making sure they each had complete plot and character arcs on their own. It was important to me that the events of each story happened at the right time so that the stories would echo, mirror, and contrast each other, creating a sort of third story in the tension between the two timelines. That process took a number of drafts to get right.
MT: There’s this saying attributed to many famous authors about writing the book you have always wanted to read but never found. Is The Map of Salt and Stars the book you’ve always wanted to read, or is there another book you’re dreaming of that is that book?
JZJ: I didn’t see myself or my family represented in the books I read growing up, and while literary representation for marginalized folks has increased in the last couple of decades, we still have a long way to go, particularly for Muslims and for queer and trans folks of color, who deserve see ourselves on the page written with love and joy and sensitivity and celebration. There are hundreds of books I’d love to read but that haven’t been written yet. This book is one of them, and there are many, many others, and I hope to write as many of them as I possibly can.
MT: What do you think is the most important quality a writer can possess, especially when writing a novel as human as The Map of Salt and Stars?
JZJ: Persistence. Don’t give up, and don’t look away, not even from the ugliest and most painful places.
MT: In all honesty, what was the hardest or most difficult part of writing this phenomenal novel? Did you ever find yourself stuck—for whatever reason—or at a point of nearly giving up?
JZJ: I considered, before I began writing it, whether this book was going to devour me. I had to carve out space in myself to hold some very difficult realities while I was writing, and it was the hope in the story—which was born out of seeing it in real people—that kept me going. Writing this book made me a humbler and more empathetic human being, and for that I’m grateful.
MT: Has any of your own life, your own experience, your own personality ever bled into the pages of this book in particular? If so, would you mind elaborating on this?
JZJ: The book is entirely fiction (with the exception of al-Idrisi, King Roger, and the creation of the Tabula Rogeriana), so it isn’t based on my life or that of any one person. As writers, though, our personalities and feelings always find their way into what we write, so that we can portray the emotions of our characters with authenticity. I also gave Nour synesthesia, which is a neurological phenomenon that I also have, in which sensory perceptions (for example letters, numbers, sounds, smells, and/or tastes) produce sensations of color. In the text, Nour sees the same colors I do.
MT: What would you advise fans of this novel—for whatever reason they loved it—to read after finishing The Map of Salt and Stars?
JZJ: I would suggest that readers seek out the writing of Syrians and refugees in their own words—books like Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin, Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar. Other anthologies and projects I found moving and informative include We Crossed a Bridge And It Trembled and Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak.
MT: How did you go about learning and adapting to the voice of the narrator of this novel? What was the most important aspect of writing the protagonist’s voice and taking on the personality of this character that you kept in mind and stuck to throughout the entire writing of the novel? What is the trick to writing a narrator with a voice that will pull in the reader?
JZJ: Whatever narrator I’m writing, I work to make their voice as authentic as possible. In The Map of Salt and Stars,I was writing a child narrator, so I had to remember what it was like to be that age, how I perceived the world and my parents and the situations I found myself in, particularly how I dealt with trauma and the narratives I relied on to get through loss.
MT: What do you feel is the significance in giving a solid ending to a story like this, while also recognizing that so many people who, in real life, are so similar to the characters in your novel, have no ending to their stories? So many people suffer through these same issues, fighting to live and survive and prosper, and their stories aren’t neatly wrapped up? What would you say is the importance of providing an ending to a story which so many real people experiencing similar stories will never fully conclude or wrap up tidily?
JZJ: I’m not sure that Nour’s story wraps up tidily. Without giving spoilers, the ending of The Map of Salt and Starsis bittersweet—respite and safety are found, but at the cost of immense and permanent loss. I think it’s important to remember that for every person or family who finds a safe place to land, it’s only after a long and harrowing journey and huge personal cost, and that there are many others who did not make it.
MT: Obviously, our readers are all big fans and are dying to know, what is next for your career, Jennifer? Do you have another book already in the works and if so, what might it be about? Can you give us any hints or clues?
JZJ: I’m currently revising my second novel, which, in a nutshell, deals with the history of New York City, the history of Syrian immigration to the United States over the past century, and what life is like for queer folks of color, particularly Muslims, in the US today.
MT: Jennifer, it was such an honor to be able to interview a talent and writer as amazing as you. I have read your novel so many times I’ve lost count. I’d love to keep asking you questions but we both know you have most stories in your and many more books to write. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and would love to hear from you again with your next publication. Please, feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, suggestions, or ideas that you haven’t felt you’ve been able to express already. And thank you again, Jennifer.
JZJ: Thanks so much for having me, for your kind words, and for reading!
Dear Reader: Thank Oprah and All Other Holy Entities for Elizabeth Little and Her Brilliant Novel, DEAR DAUGHTER
Note to reder: Don't count on me prefacing every interview from here on out, but Elizabeth Little is a talent to be reckoned with, and DEAR DAUGHTER is a novel that sparks inspiration as much as it sparks interest. I discovered this novel (as if I'm the first person to read it--bitch, please) a year or so ago, and was so incredibly taken by it that I would manage to wipe this novel--which seem so incredibly vapid and basic on the surface, but is actually so incredibly well written and complicated and complex and unique if you turn just one page--from my mind so I could read it again and again. In a way, it became a novel of comfort--DEAR DAUGHTER is a novel that's more than just. story of finding yourself and learning who you are, but to give away too many details would to ruin something I willingly will deem a masterpiece. God knows, with the theory that every author improves with each book, what Elizabeth Little will come up with next and how completely and wholly it will shape the world. A further note: don't assume that Elizabeth's modesty is anything more than an element of the unreliable narrators we read in so many great crime novels. DEAR DAUGHTER is a feat and Elizabeth is a master wordsmith and--in case you don't believe me by now--I dare you to read the novel and not fall in love with it instantly and completely. Go ahead. Happy reading.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Elizabeth! I’ve loved your novel Dear Daughterfor the longest time—it’s one of those amazing novels that is both catchy and delicious while also being nuanced and beautiful. When you first decided to write a novel, or begin to approach an idea like this, how did the novel begin to form and how did it come to be the celebrated novel it is today?
Elizabeth Little:Oh, thank you so much for saying that. “Catchy and delicious” is a perfect way to desribe what I was going for.
When, after nearly a decade writing nonfiction, I finally decided to try my hand at fiction, my first few stalled attempts were all so stuffy and literary—stories that were absolutely dead on arrival. I had no idea what I wanted to write beyond “comedy of manners, maybe?” Suffice it to say, it wasn’t going well! But then, one night, I got lucky: I received the breaking news alert from CNN about Amanada Knox’s release, and I was up for hours thinking through what it would be like for someone with that level of notoreity to try to reenter American society after all that press coverage, after all that time in prison, and I think it was that night or the next that I wrote the first draft of the chapter where Jane cuts off her hair and prepares to go out into the world. And then it was off to the races. It really was like being kicked in the head by the muse. The right idea really has a sort of gravity to it.
MT: You’ve created a character in Janie that is both incredibly likable and incredibly unlikable at once. Through your careful and creative use of humor, pop culture, and a very elaborate personality that stems back even further than the crime that has defined her, you’ve developed a woman and a voice that draws the reader right in. How did you find Janie’s voice and her history, and how long did it take you before you were entirely comfortable in writing from her point-of-view?
EL:To be honest I’m not sure I was ever comfortable writing Jane—I was fluent in her language, certainly, but she’s so angry and lonely and pricklythat writing her could be exhausting at times, particularly when her mood would bleed into my own.
I’ve only written three novels (one of which I threw out), so I’m hesitant to make too many generalizations about my process, but I think it’s safe to say I really prioritize getting the voice right from page one. I can’t understand a character until I have a feel for her use of language, and I can’t possibly hang a plot on a character I don’t fully understand.
One of the reasons I think I was able to write Dear Daughter so quickly is that I locked in on Jane’s voice very early on—I think it was maybe a week after I had the initial idea that I wrote the line, “Other girls dreamed of sex or drugs or cigarettes; I’d’ve given my left kidney for some [totally unnecessary expletive] Pantene.” And as soon as I saw that on the page I knew who Jane was: wry, relentlessly provocative, and deeply committed to playing up the worst possible version of herself. And whenever I would feel myself drifting off course, I’d go back to that line and remind myself. For better or for worse, this is who Jane is.
MT: One of the truly genius and innovative aspects of this novel is how, between chapters from Janie’s point of view, there are snippets of reports from newspapers and articles from tabloid that make the novel even more entrancing? How did you come up with the idea to make use of this sort of media invented within the book, and if you’re being honest, what was harder: writing Janie or writing these reports on her life, both in relation to her crime and after she’s been removed from jail?
EL:That was something I was doing from the very, very beginning. I’ve always been fascinated by the game of media telephone that results in a given accepted narrative, and living in Los Angeles (and being married to a filmmaker and surrounded by storytellers in a wide range of media) has made me even more sensitive to the disparate forces that determine celebrity. So a very early exercise I did with this book was to write a scene from Jane’s perspective—then to write that scene from the perspective of a well-meaning prestige screenwriter—then to write that scene one more time as if that screenwriter received a bucketload of terrible studio notes. They were so much fun I decided I had to incoporate them into the final manuscript.
Which had the added and unexpected benefit of giving me an entertaining way to dump exposition and to give readers a little bit of a break from Jane’s very deep 1st person POV, whom I love deeply but can be exhausting to be around.
There are times when I worried that it was a little bit gimmicky … but also, gimmicks are fun, and at the end of the day, I want my readers to be entertained. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I’m also including interstitals in my next book (in the form of podcast transcripts this time).
MT: Janie’s character is, for lack of better words, very valley girl and nonchalant, very aware of the crimes against her and determined to solve a mystery that will take the course of the novel for Janie to understand, but also she is searching for her roots and where her mother came from and what connections her mother might have had to areas of America so foreign from Janie. What was so important about creating such a complicated character, and why was it essential for her to discover her mother’s life before she became, well, Janie’s mother?
EL:I started writing this book when my son was very young, so motherhood—what comes before and after, how it changes you, how it doesn’tchange you—was very much on my mind. And I think—becuase this is the way my brain works—that there was something therapeutic for me about imagining a worst-case scenario between a mother and her child. That maybe I hoped by really digging into a dysfunctional relationship like the one between Jane and her mother that I might be able to vaccinate myself against a similar future estrangement. So many people have asked me if I was working out my issues with my own mother in this book when the truth is I was working out my issues with me asa mother.
MT: In a sense, Janie is stumbling into a position and a place she is neither aware of nor prepared for. What were your favorite and most interesting methods of creating tension and suspense in a novel and setting like this?
EL: I very purposely put Jane in situations she was ill-equipped for because, frankly, it’s a quick and dirty way to generate suspense. Every single interaction was a test she could very plausibly fail. I’m simply not interested in folks who have it easy: I wanted her to be challenged every step of the way.
Another important tool for me in terms of generating tension is first-person POV. By staying in Jane’s (necessarily unreliable) head the entire novel, I was able to reasonably withhold information from the reader and also emphasize in an immediate, intimate way the very physical danger and discomfort that Jane was often in. I’m such a brain in a jar personally that visceral sensation is very difficult for me to write—it’s probably my biggest challenge with my current book—but I think it’s so important to try to get the reader to feelalong with a character in a suspense novel.
I think there’s also something very productive about not tricking yourself into believing that you’re going to be able to pull one over on your audience. Mystery readers are so clever and well-read and familiar with conventions and tropes and, so, are far more often than not going to outthink the author. So I just accept that the audience is going to figure out the end point and try to surprise them instead with how I get there.
MT: This is such a wonderful crime book, and while it is so unique unto itself, what authors and books published prior to Dear Daughtertruly interested you in writing a book like this? What books were most important to your formative years, and who are your favorite crime novelists today?
EL: This is always a difficult question for me because I’m a voracious and affectionate reader, and putting together a finite list of favorites is basically impossible. It’s probably worth noting for anyone trying to pick apart my influences that I wasn’t justa mystery reader as a kid—I also read a huge amount of romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Anything “genre,” really. For whatever reason, I’m just better able to connect emotionally to genre material. Maybe I just need made-up monsters to project my feelings onto, who knows! A question for my therapist, perhaps.
It’s also tricky to pick out my favorite crime novelists because the crime fiction community is so close-knit that I worry I will inadvertantly leave someone I love off and then I’ll have to avoid them at conferences for the rest of my life out of sheer, miserable embarrassment, and that would be terrible. So I’m going to take the fifth there. If you ever want an extensive list of romance recommendations, though, I am here for you!
MT: The sense of identity is so important to this novel, especially for Janie. How does Janie evolve and change in relation to her discovery of her own identity, and in what ways does her view of her mother change throughout the novel—without revealing too many spoilers, of course?
EL: You know, when I was living in New York after college, my roommate made up a list of things I liked and disliked so as to better manage my moods (she’s a saint), and right the top of the list of things I hate was “journeys of self-discovery.” So it’s a source of endless amusement to me—and to her, I hope—that I ended up writing what is unequivocally and very literally a journey of self-discovery. At the beginning of the book Jane has absolutely no idea who she is. She spent her adolescence constructing an identity designed to provoke and irritate and inflame a very specific audience … but now she finds herself without an audience. And if an It Girl falls in the forest and the paparrazi isn’t there to photograph her, does she make a sound?
Furthermore, she genuinely isn’t sure if she’s guilty or not, and that’s just an unbearable situation for her to be in. She may not mind being an asshole, but she truly doesn’t want to think she’s a killer. So her investigation is just as much about finding herself as it is finding her mother’s murderer (and, of course, those two things could be one and the same).
I’m not sure that Jane necessarily becomes a “better” person over the course of the book—that’s a trajectory that, on its own, doesn’t much move me—but certainly as she learns more about her mother’s past she moves closer to a more honestunderstanding of herself, one that isn’t so driven by media narratives. I think that’s all I can say without spoiling things, though!
MT: As I’ve mentioned before, one of the greatest elements of your writing, other than the suspense and extreme tension you’re able to create, is your humor. I’ve read from other luminaries like Louise Erdrich that she claims one of the hardest aspect of writing is incorporating humor into her writing. How is writing humorous lines or scenes for you, and why do you think this sort of writing is important to a novel like this?
EL: It’s very gratifying to hear this,becauseto be honest, I think of Dear Daughter as a comedy—not that you’d know that to look at the cover. (The title, for instance, was never meant as an allusion to the letter that Jane recieves two-thirds of the the way through the book—for me it was initially a play on the terms parents use on new mommy message boards.) I admit that it’s not quite as arch as I’d envisioned it—initially I was going more for something like To Die For before I started to care a little bit too much about my own characters—but it’s definitely meant to be funny.
I’d agree that comedy—whether we’re talking situational humor or one-liners—is really difficult to pull off, especially when threading a tonal needle like this one, and the only way to make it work, I think, is to make sure the humor is always, always in character. That way even a failed joke isn’t a total loss: It can still round out a reader’s understanding of a character.
But maybe that’s just my way of excusing the jokes that don’t land.
MT: With Dear Daughter, do you mind disclosing what your favorite parts of writing this novel were, and what the most challenging aspects of writing Dear Daughter were?
EL: Writing a novel is, I think, a lot like giving birth in that it’s an excruciating experience that you forget the specific pain of almost immediately. So while I know intellectually that I agonized over Dear Daughter, when I think back on it my memories are very fond and rosy. It was a marathon I felt very lucky to be able to complete.
But generally I can say that the drafting process is always miserable for me, while the editing process is typically nothing less than exhilirating. I was very lucky to have an extraordinary editor for Dear Daughter—and I have the same editor for my current book—and she really does bring out the best in me. It’s a joy, truly, to see where her notes take me.
MT: How long did it take you to write Dear Daughter? How many incarnations did it go through, and what were some of the most significant changes you made in the novel? How hard was it finding an agent for this novel if you didn’t have one already, and what was the publication process like for you? Was the whole process fairly smooth or were there several bumps in the road?
EL: All told, I want to say about a year? There were some stops and starts along the way, though, and I was still finishing up my second nonfiction book when I first had the idea, so from conception to publication I think it was a little over two years? It was all very smooth, to be honest. I’d published before—and worked in publishing for several years—so I had a pretty intimate understanding of the publication process, which meant that nothing really caught me off guard. Also, I have a brilliant agent who I’ve worked with for my entire career, and she is verygood at solving problems before I’m even aware of them. So who knows, maybe it was actually an incredibly bumpy process!
MT: There are so many up-and-coming writers, so many aspiring novelists who look up to you and your success and wonder how they can accomplish feats similar to yours. If you had to address any of these readers, or even yourself prior to the publication of Dear Daughter, what advice would you give a growing novelist trying to make an impression on the literary community?
EL: There’s so much in the publishing world that is absolutely out of the author’s control, so my advice to young writers—now and forever—is to focus on the craft. Dear Daughter was my debut novel, yes, but before that I’d published two nonfiction books and had been working as a writer or in writing-adjacent fields for more than a decade, and I know absolutely that I couldn’t have written Dear Daughter without that experience and hard work. Too many beginning writers, in my mind, obsess about plot and twist and narrative gimmickry when what they should be doing is learning to write a damn good sentence. The original plot for Dear Daughter was such garbage I can’t even remember it—what caught my editor’s eye was my use of language. Cultivate your voice; polish your prose; and for God’s sake, don’t be boring.
MT: Similarly, what do you think are the greatest and most important aspects that make up a crime writer of any sort?
EL: An impossible question to answer, I’m afraid. There are as many different kinds of crime writers as there are crime readers, and the strengths they bring to the page are so varied. I will say that I have found that crime writers are, on the whole, an incredibly kind and generous group—but I’ve always figured that’s because we somehow exorcise our darker demons through our work.
MT: Elizabeth, my readers and I are dying to know: what book is next for you? I know from our correspondence you have been working on another manuscript. Do you mind revealing anything about the book at all? What can you tell us without revealing any major spoilers?
EL: My next book is called Dissolve, and it’s the story of a film editor who finds herself drawn into a decades-old mystery when the lead actress on the movie she’s working on is muderered. I’m working on revisions with my editor now, so I’m hoping it will be out next year.
MT: Thank you so much for agreeing to being interviewed by me, Elizabeth. I am so thankful to get to pick a brilliant mind like yours, and, of course, I can’t wait to see what work you produce in the future, and the long and impressive career you’re sure to have ahead of you. Do you have anything you’d like to leave us with, any thoughts or comments, questions or suggestions? And again, it was a great pleasure getting to know more about you and your book, Elizabeth.
EL: Thank you so much for giving me the chance to answer your very thought-provoking questions! I only hope I remembered Dear Daughter well enough to have given you decent answers!
For the record, I make a purpose of recommending and promoting authors I don't like, which means there are very few straight white men I enjoy reading, let alone interviewing. There was Joe Hill, Lou Berney, and a few others, and now I'd like to add Michael Farris Smith to this very exclusive list. Interviewing Michael and getting some really great answers from him was an absolute blessing. I cannot remember who recommended his work to me, but on behalf of us, thank you. And please know that just because this interview focuses on his most recent book, 2018's THE FIGHTER, that doesn't mean you shouldn't read every single one of his works. I have read them all multiple times in preparation for interviewing Michael, and also just for fun. Like Alice Munro with her stories, Michael can fit most in a couple hundred pages than many major writers can in over 500, and just like Toni Morrison, Michael's sentences are so beautifully and uniquely crafted they sometimes take many rereads to grasp the full punch behind them. Without further adieu and all that, here's Michael Farris Smith:
Matthew Turbeville: Michael, it is such a pleasure to get to interview you. I forget which one of your amazing peers recommended The Fighterto me, and I’m sure whoever it is will gladly admit they suggested the read, but it’s an absolutely phenomenal book. I always like to start off with basic questions before we head into the heavy stuff—so I guess, my first question to you would be what inspired The Fighter, and what helped push you through the writing process along with revisions and eventual publication?
Michael Farris Smith:
The Fighterwas the most direct, uninterrupted experience I’ve had with a novel so far. I had the idea, and then I had about 10 months waiting on Desperation Roadto release, and I just sat down and it came to me like a bullet. Just one day after the next, never looking up, and six months later I had a draft I was very excited about. I wish it could be like that every time.
MT: There’s something so enchanting about the Deep South. As someone from South Carolina, which is really, really deep in the South, I love reading these stories. I was wondering what advantages setting a novel like The Fighterin the Deep South had for the story, and possibly what disadvantages it provided?
MFS: I don’t really think about place in terms of advantages or disadvantages. I love using setting as a character in itself, and certainly many Southern writers and influences of mine do the same. I just think that if you are writing about a place you know and love, then both the beauty and the ugly and everything in between will show itself honestly. Certainly the Mississippi Delta fit perfectly for The Fighter, I think the isolation and desolation of the region mirrored Jack Boucher and all he was up against, physically and emotionally.
MT: You have a very poetic and also intense voice, the language helping to power the reader through the story. What novels and other works of literature were most important to your development as a writer? Which books or authors helped to shape your voice?
MFS: Hemingway was an early influence. Mostly because I read him way before I started writing myself and I didn’t know that he was teaching me to write a good, strong declarative sentence. Then there was the discovery of Larry Brown and his hard-earned success. I would also add Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Jim Harrison, William Gay. As far as stories, the very first stories I really knew were from the bible and Sunday School. My dad was a preacher so I was always in church and those stories came alive for me, and filled with such great images, with such extreme emotion, with failure and redemption.
MT: What are your other favorite books set in the Deep South, whether they fall into your own genre or whether they are in a completely different sort of storytelling? Who are the core Southern writers who have paved the way for you, as well as historical events in the South, and perhaps your own upbringing?
MFS: I think I mentioned most of the writers above, but I’d also add Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Brad Watson, Tom Franklin into the group. Barry Hannah certainly taught me a lot about how just imaginative fiction could be, that you can break all the rules, all that matters is if it works. As far as events, I’d point again to my background, growing up in the church. I was always around gospel music, which I think had a big influence on the way my sentences came out when I began to write. I love the lyricism of language and I don’t see how the music could not have had an impact on that.
MT: There’s this idea of a man, brutal and vicious as a fighter, juxtaposed with how tender he is with his foster mother and then, later, a girl who claims to be his daughter. How did you balance these two elements, and what do you think this sort of character says about men today? Would you say the protagonist of The Fighteris realistic as a modern man?
MFS: I think it’s just trying to create a character like a real person, with real complexities, with a heart and soul. I loved how Jack transformed during the writing. It obviously began with the physical notion of a man and the world he had encountered, but getting into the psychology of it, into the relationships that brought him there, trying to find out what he loved, that was so interesting. I learned a long time ago that every one who walks into your novel, you have to treat them like a real person. So that’s what I tried to do.
MT: When you write about the South and stories like these, what do you keep in mind when approaching a novel that could be stigmatized or looked down upon as a Southern novel? What do you think are the stigmas or stereotypes you fight against when writing a novel like The Fighter?
MFS: I don’t think about it. That’s for everyone else. Certainly there are stigmas that come with the mention of a Southern novel, whether fair or not. I’m just trying to write about the human condition, the struggles we all face. I don’t really think of it as “writing about the South” as much as I think of it as writing about the places and people I know.
MT: As I mentioned before, the novel features a very strong and sometimes violent main character who constantly goes back to his loving and helpful foster mother, and is surrounded by an assortment of women. What do you think is your purpose in writing about women in fiction, and what are you trying to say both about women in the South, and women in modern day America?
MFS: Like I mentioned before, I’m just trying to create characters that are real, whether they are women or men. I’ve been fortunate to have been around and been raised by strong, creative, courageous women. A mom, two grandmothers, nine aunts, two sisters, and now a wife and two daughters. Whenever I’m asked about how I create the women in my novels, I take it as a great compliment, both for being able to portray the women as strong and impactful, and for the reasons why I came to realize them this way.
MT: I’ve had not only readers but agents and editors read my own work and tell me, “This just doesn’t seem possible” to which I generally reply—at least recently—“I’m pretty sure anything is possible now that Trump is president.” In relation to The Fighterand any of your other books, what do you believe are the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome in writing them? What do you think is the hardest part of writing a book, and what aspects of writing have been the toughest when getting representation from an agent or selling a book to a publisher?
MFS: This varies, depending on what stage you are at in your writing life. For me, right now, the biggest hurdle is maintaining the discipline to get to work each morning and continue to try and create at a high level. I have a wife, two daughters, teach some classes, have plenty of responsibilities to my writing life, and then just life in general. So for me, it’s maintaining focus on what I’m doing and doing it consistently.
MT: What is your writing process like? Do you write in the morning, afternoon, evening, or night? Do you set a certain number of words or pages a day, or just write for a certain time period? What do you think is the best setting for a writer to get the maximum amount of work done?
MFS: It’s important to be habitual, and I’ve learned that over the years. I have a work space outside of my home, a little studio space. I get my girls to school in the morning and then I go right to it. I much prefer working in the morning, before life can get in the way. I shoot for 1,000 words a day, whether I have an hour to work or three hours. If I can get to that studio at 8:00 am, four or five times a week, a novel can begin to appear in a few months. But you gotta go.
MT: In The Fighter, you have successfully made an unlikable—or, potentially, unlikable character very likable. What efforts did you have to take to make this possible? What are some advice and tips you’d give writers who want to make their protagonists more likable or relatable?
MFS: I think you just have to realize that every character needs to be treated like a real person. No one is good all the time, no one is bad all the time. And all of us have reasons as to why we have become what we are. The same thing for characters in a novel. I’ve just learned to really dive into a character, discover what brought them to become what they are, what drives them, what do they think about or do when no one else is around.
MT: How many books did you write before you sold your first novel? Were you always a writer, even as a kid, or did the art form come to you later in life? What do you think is the most important tool a writer can have in shaping their craft?
MFS: I didn’t start writing until I was about 29. And like everybody else, I have a novel and probably a couple of halves of novels in a drawer somewhere, or more likely a landfill. It’s hard to say what the most important tool is that a writer can have, because it varies, but I will say that if you want to do it or are in the middle of doing it, stamina is pretty damn important.
MT: The Fighteris, relatively speaking, a rather short book that packs in a lot material with a serious punch—just like the novel’s main character. Can you describe how you plotted out the novel, and if you knew the ending from the very beginning of writing the novel? What is your writing method like?
MFS: I don’t plot or plan or outline or anything like that. All of my novels have begun with a very strong image I can’t get out of my head and that’s how I know it’s what I should sit down and try to chase. For The Fighter, it was Jack, all busted up, driving through the night, in some trouble, and I just started to follow him to see what got him into this place in time. I think a lot of beginning writers believe you have to know the story before you sit down to write it and that’s not true. You discover it as you go along.
MT: What books would you recommend to our readers who love your writing? And what books would you recommend in general? What can we expect to see coming from you in the future—I know there’s a new book set for release, but I’m sure our readers would love to hear something about the future release!
MFS: I recommend the writers who influenced me, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, Jim Harrison, Flannery O’Connor, among others. And I would also suggest to read author interviews, that gets you behind the curtain. I have learned so much from reading interviews of writers, musicians, artists, actors, anyone who lives in the creative realm.
MT: Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to conduct this interview with me. It was such a pleasure reading The Fighteragain and again. I am so thankful that it was recommended to me, and also that you agreed to be interviewed for www.writerstellall.com--we love your fiction and will continue to look forward to more books by you. Feel free to close the interview with any thoughts, suggestions, questions, or other ideas you might have had while being interviewed by me. And thank you again.
MFS: Thanks for the invitation for the interview and very happy The Fighter struck you. Wish I knew who recommended it to you, I owe them a beer.
Lori Rader-Day on THE BLACK HOUR and LITTLE PRETTY THINGS, now on Audiobook! (And you better get a copy!)
A brief note: Whether you realize that my origins are in crime literature, or you recognize how much I love the works of specific authors (usually female) you know that I have an affinity for crime fiction written by women. In this case, one of my very favorite authors, Lori Rader-Day, is finally having her first two books, THE BLACK HOUR and LITTLE PRETTY THINGS issued on audiobook. Please do yourself a favor and purchase an audio or hard copy if you haven't already (or re-purchase them, I can vouch and say the audio versions add to the text too!). Also, don't forget who two most recent books, THE DAY I DIED and UNDER A DARK SKY. I got to sit down with Lori, very briefly, to discuss her older books and what it means to have them released as audiobooks. Here you go:
Matthew Turbeville: Lori, as always, it’s an honor and a pleasure to talk to you. Can you start off by talking about your first two books, now on audiobook for everyone to enjoy? How did they come to be and how long did they take to become what they are today, both in print and in audio form? Of all of your books, which are you most proud of?
LR-D: I’m proud of all my books. Wow, that sounds like I’ve written 27 of them. I have four novels, but I’m proud of at the moment is that they are all now available in audiobook format, from HarperAudio, with outstanding readers giving them voice. The first two, The Black Hourand Little Pretty Things, were not in audio until recently, four and five years after they were first published in paper and ebook. The Black Hourtook me about two and half years to write and revise, and then Little Pretty Thingstook about two years. Proof that I am getting faster.
MT: It’s very clear that the old saying about how a writer gets better as she writes is true. But that does not mean by any means that your earlier work should be ignored. It’s brilliant. Award-winning, even. Can you talk about how your work and writing style has evolved, as well as how your writing process has changed, and anything else you might think is of note?
LR-D: My writing process changed during the revision of my third novel, The Day I Died, in that I became a full-time writer. I no longer have to compress writing time into my lunch hour during my crazy full-time job. However. I should say that I had a lot of discipline during the writing of my first books because I only had that one hour a day. If I didn’t work during that hour, no work got done that day. Now that I have far more flexibility...I can waste a lotof time. The process of the actual writing hasn’t changed much, though. I’m definitely on the writing-by-the-seat-of-my-pants end of the spectrum of plotting. As in, I don’t. (Or I didn’t. My process has been evolving lately as I write my fifth novel.) I started with a few points on the math for both of these first novels and wrote my way into the story and then back out, relying a lot on revision to bring all the threads of the stories together. I am a big believer in revision. I do get tired of it, but it’s the best tool in the writer’s toolbox: revision and time.
MT: When you first began trying to get published and establish a name for yourself, how did you do so? And how did organizations like Sisters in Crime help shape your work too? You have referenced elsewhere being influenced by Lois Duncan, Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark but which authors and books most influenced your work as you were starting to publish?
LR-D: I did join Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and as soon as I could, International Thriller Writers, but more than that, I got involved with these groups. I volunteered to do things I could do (newsletter editor? Right here!) so that I could talk to other members, have something to talk to other members about, have a role and a place in the community instead of standing against the wall, waiting to be noticed. I don’t know if I can say that the organizations shaped my work, exactly. They shaped my role in the community, and they shape my weekly work load, because of how much time I’ve devoted to volunteering for them. (I write this to you from the position of national vice-president/president-elect of Sisters in Crime.) I never have a lack of people to read, though, because I’m always playing catch up with all the great books being released, just by friends.
As I was starting to publish, my greatest influences were Sarah Waters and Gillian Flynn, because I read a book by each of them back-to-back and knew I was sniffing out the kind of books I wanted to write. I had been told the story I was working on was a crime novel, but I didn’t understand how books were categorized and sub-categorized, so it was helpful to find a pair of novels that showed me the direction I could strive for. The books: The Little Stranger(Waters) and Dark Places(Flynn). I was also greatly influenced by reading widely in the genre once I knew I was in the right place.Little Pretty Thingsis my straight-up Nancy Drew attempt to get mystery people to like me. (The Black Hourwasn’t immediately recognizable as a “mystery” by some.)
MT: I know that until recently, for the longest time, I felt like I was writing a book by a favorite of my authors. It wasn’t until recently that I felt like the book I wrote was all my own. Did you ever face that issue, or any other issues, similar or different, that growing and learning writers might feel they are alone in?
LR-D: This is a pretty big question. I have written short stories that were not yet in my own voice, so I think I know what you mean. The novel I put away in the drawer for years, the first novel I ever finished writing, was in some other voice. That was part of its problems, but not all. When I started writing The Black Hour, the writing felt easier somehow than the labored writing I had been attempting with that failed novel, and I think part of it was that I had decided to write a story the way I would tell myself. When I eventually took that failed book out of the drawer and rewrote it, it was easier to see why it had not worked, and part of that was I could see where I was trying to be a different writer than I turned out to be. I needed to give myself time. The biggest issue with a beginning writer is that they have a lot of questions (like this one you’re asking me) that could so easily be answered if they could talk to other writers. That’s why I always send people to join the associations of their genre (MWA and Sisters for ours) or to find a writing group or to start one. Maybe there are people who don’t need other writers as they write, but good for them. The rest of us do.
MT: Lori, I won’t keep you much longer, but what do you think it means that these books are published in audio form for the blind or near blind or just people who have hard times concentrating on books that aren’t audio, etc? What do you think is the importance in telling stories in all their forms?
LR-D: The audiobooks are important for me, because my grandmother was legally blind, but she kept reading by listening to audiobooks. They were on cassette tapes (!) then, and the library brought them out to her. She kept her own house, had lots of friends and activities, but she wanted to listen to stories, and so the audiobooks helped her have a bigger life and more enjoyment from it, which is what everyone wants. We all deserve stories available to us that crack open the world for us—that’s what #ownvoices is about, for starters. But then it helps if the stories are available in all the formats so that people can arrive at them where they need to. Large print (Under a Dark Skyis my first large print!), ebook where you can dial up the font size, audio. More than visual impairment or focus, audiobooks also bring stories to people who have long commutes or travel a lot for work—these are the people who are making audiobooks so hot right now, I think. They can do their chores or drive the kids around or commute home on the L and still keep up with all the stories they want. Working adults have so little time for things they only wantto do but don’t haveto do. If they can chisel some reading time out of a commute, that’s great. And their demand for audiobooks ensures they are available in that format for those who really require that format. Good news for everyone.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Lou! I’m so happy that, since the publication of The Long and Faraway Goneand Megan Abbott having recommended it to me, we’ve gotten to know each other and become friends. I’m constantly in awe of your talents and writing abilities. The first question I’d like to start off with is this: how did you come up with the idea of November Road, and why did you decide to set it during, or sort of revolving around, the death of President Kennedy?
Lou Berney: One of the main characters in the novel was inspired by my mother, who passed away about ten years ago. My mother grew up poor, during the Depression, and never went to college, but she was one of the smartest, most resilient, most intellectually curious people I’ve ever known. A couple of years ago I was going through old photos from before I was born and something just started stirring. I started thinking, like every writer does, What if? What if, at a certain point, my mother had made a different choice? Would it have been the bestchoice of her life, or the worst?
As for the Kennedy angle, I’ve always been fascinated by the assassination. I grew up in Oklahoma City, only a few hours from Dallas, and we’d drive down every summer to visit. My dad would always drive us through Dealey Plaza, slow down right where Kennedy was shot, and point up to the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. I always felt a chill. Still do!
MT: You really do a lot in this book—a lot of really great things, from vivid and glorious prose, to creating dynamite characters and a story that fizzles and pops with dread, suspense, and even love. When you approach these different elements, and work to keep the reader hooked, how do you go about executing everything so perfectly that you both draw in reader and keep them glued to the page?
LB: Well, I’d love to say it comes easily and naturally, but wow, does it ever not. It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of banging my head against a brick wall until a chink opens up (in the wall, hopefully, not my head) and a little ray of light shines through. Basically, I just write and re-write a scene until it starts to feel right. I think there are probably much more efficient and painless ways to write, but that’s what works for me.
MT: This book is really taking off and it hasn’t even been published for the greater public yet. Rave reviews from everyone and I think it’s really becoming obvious how important and integral a member of the crime community you are, if that wasn’t established with the publication and success of The Long and Faraway Gone. When you look back on your career years from now, what do you think will be the book you view at the taking off moment for you—which book do you believe is the book that changed you from a crime writer to a household name?
LB: I don’t think any writer is really ever a household (well, maybe Stephen King, deservedly so), and I have no expectation of ever being even mildly famous. But I do think with The Long and Faraway GoneI finally figured out the kind of book Iwant to write. That felt like a huge step and I was so grateful that readers seemed to agree.
MT: In The Long and Faraway Gone, and again in November Road, you explore this idea of characters whose lives intersect, who are all trying to fight their way towards whatever they want. What do you think is so important in your books and in real life about acknowledging the way in which we all intersect with one another, and the profound impact we can have on each other’s lives?
LB: I think the idea of intersecting characters just comes from personal experience, and being at a point in my life when I can look back and see clearly how much other people have meant to me, how important even fleeting relationships (good and bad) can be. You brush against thisperson instead of thatperson, and your whole entire life could have played out in a radically different way.
MT: Who are the authors, past and present—especially contemporary—who you admire, and who have shaped you as a writer? Which are the books that have really grounded you and made you who you are? What is the books or what are the books that you return to again and again for inspiration?
LB: Kate Atkinson is my favorite living writer, and the writer who’s influenced and inspired me the most, probably. I’m also a fanatic admirer of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Ivy Pochoda, Viet Than Nguyen, Louise Erdrich, John Edgar Wideman, Don Winslow, Kelly Link, the cartoonist Lynda Barry, Rachel Kushner, and…I could go on and on and on. There are lots of younger writers I really love too, like Rachel Khong, Lori Rader-Day, Elizabeth Little, Steph Cha, Chris Holm, Sheena Kamal…I’m going on and on, aren’t I? And I know you said contemporary, but I’m going to throw in Flannery O’Connor because I wouldn’t be a writer without her.
MT: When you begin a book, what is your usual jumping off point? Where do you start, and how do you proceed? Do you believe in firm outlines, and how many drafts do you usually go through before you reach the final product you may or may not have envisioned all along?
LB: I do a lot of brainstorming, just jotting down notes in a notebook, playing around with ideas. Once something solid starts to emerge from the mist, I get more analytical and start planning. I rough out a map, fill in blanks. After that I start drafting, but then usually go back to Stage 1 and Stage 2 often. The process for me is kind of non-linear, even though the story I’m telling isn’t.
MT: How do you go about developing characters, especially the incredibly complicated and complex women you write about? There are so many male writers who won’t read women writers, let alone write about women. What pushes you in this direction, and why do you think it’s essential for men to read and write about women, or really any person to read and write about someone or something outside themselves?
LB: I absolutely think it’s essential to read about people different than yourself. I mean, it’s fun! It’s illuminating! It’s challenging! It’s transforming! It’s everything that reading (and life) should be!
As for what draws me to female characters, for sure a lot of it has to do with the women writers I read and love. Plus, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to have been surrounded my whole life by amazing women: my mother, my sisters, my wife, my nieces, dear friends. Leaving women out of my fiction would be like living on the dark side of the moon for me.
MT: Who do you write for when you are working on a novel? Yourself? An editor, an agent? The future readers? Once, a mentor told me to never give the reader what he or she wants. How do you feel about this, and how much do you try to cater to the reader when writing?
LB: I write for my wife, as silly as that might sound. She’s the person I imagine opening one of my books and starting to read. All readers matter to me, but she matters most.
MT: I tend to ask this question frequently for writers, and I would love to know your answer.. There’s a quote attributed to many great writers, including and especially Toni Morrison, about how you should write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never had the chance to find. Do you feel you’ve written this book in the past, or is this book still to come?
LB: I think that’s a good quote, a fascinating notion. I think with these last two books, The Long and Faraway Goneand November Road,I’m finally writing the novels that I should be writing. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect or anything like that, but they feel fully mynovels, for better or worse. And that makes me happy.
MT: How has your process in rising to crime writing fame been like? What was it like trying to get published at first? Was it difficult, and did you have to go through more than one book in order to get your first novel published? What advice would you give to aspiring authors, young and old, who want to write things like you, in order to get to a position where they can not only succeed, but excel as well?
LB: All the best writing advice has already been given, so I doubt I have anything useful to add. But I guess I’d tell an aspiring writer to read a ton and write a ton and use rejection as motivation to get better.
MT: What are your writing habits like? Are you a day or a night writer? Somewhere in between? Do you set aside a certain number of words or pages per day, or do you just wing it? How long does it take on average to finish an entire draft of a novel? Please feel free to elaborate on any of your other processes and habits as a writer, as I’m sure we’re all dying to know, and it would benefit many of us aspiring writers.
LB: I write for five or six hours a day, six days a week (and usually half a day on Sunday). I’m a slow writer is the problem, and I screw up a lot – I write entire chapters that I end up cutting, etc. But I’ve learned to live with my inefficiencies. Usually I write outside the house, at a local coffee shop. I find the routine is helpful – to get up, put on pants, get out of the house. I like the clamor and clatter around me too. Somehow it makes it easier for me to focus.
MT: This book, November Road, which is receiving rave reviews from everyone, combines so many different characters and backstories and plotlines. How did you keep track of all of the different stories and characters and how did you make sure they would combine or clash or possibly even explode at the times they were needed?
LB: I use software called Scrivener, which makes it easy to break down chapters and POVs. It’s basically a digital corkboard. But still, in the early stages of drafting, I get stuff mixed up. And you should see my timelines. I like to switch POV and overlap, and sometimes I go way off track. My editor at William Morrow is great at, among other things, straightening me out on that.
MT: The ending seems very important, and I’m trying to avoid any spoilers, and if you avoiding any spoilers too, could you elaborate on why the novel ends as it does, and the significance of the ending, which I’m sure our readers will be interested upon finishing reading their own copies of the books? Endings are always so particular, and I’m so interested in why this novel ended or had to end the way it did.
LB: A good ending to me has to feel authentic andsatisfying. I can nail authentic that’s not satisfying, and satisfying that’s not authentic, but both at the same time – that’s extremely hard for me to do. So there’s a lot of trial and error, hit and miss, sleepless nights.
MT: Lou, I’m sure our readers are dying to know, what’s next for you? Are you already working on another novel? If so, can you give us any hint or hints as to what it’s about, maybe even a teaser of what the book will be like?
LB: I’m working on a psychological thriller about marriage, and that’s really all I can tell you because that’s really all I know about it right now (even though I’ve been working on it for a while).
MT: Lou, thank you so much for stopping by Writers Tell All and letting me talk to you about your new book, November Road. It’s a miraculous read and I’m sure our readers will be more than willing to go and pick up a copy of the book for themselves. Please let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, concerns, or questions, and again, thank you so much for stopping by to talk November Road.
LB: Thanks for having me! These have been awesome questions, and I appreciate how thoughtful and specific they’ve been.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Sara. This is clearly going to be one of my favorite interviews ever—Claire DeWitt is one of the major influences that got me into crime writing (and reading and reviewing). I’m not saying I’m your biggest fan ever, but I’m also not saying that I don’t have you set as a google alert. It’s been a while since you’ve revisited Claire, at least as far as the public knows, so what brought you back to Claire—and I’m sure, as you know, any DeWitt novel is a literary event on par with Y2K.
Sara Gran: Ha, I remember Y2K very well, I strongly suspect you're too young to remember the silliness of it! Anyway. Yes, it's been a while. Life has intervened in my Claire DeWitt writing/publishing schedule. The good intervention has been working on scripts and in writer's rooms in H'wood, which is fun and lucrative, if sometimes frustrating. The bad intervention has been a remarkable amount of illness and death in my family. The value-neutral intervention has been my editor and I taking a really long time to edit this very unwieldy book, which I think paid off at the end.
MT: This may be a question unto itself, but how do you balance all of Claire’s character traits into making her a completely unique person all her own?
SG: That's in interesting question, and I think the answer is, I never try to balance it. I feel like as writers and as humans, we sometimes get into trouble when we expect people to follow patterns or logic or really any kind of order at all. People can have very disparate traits and they can rub against each other in interesting ways. We shouldn't hesitate to embrace that.
MT: When in the history of your career did you realize “I’ve made it”? And how does it feel (t least, in my opinion) to be such a fucking amazing woman who can walk circles around most male writers? It feels like you’ve opened up so many different paths for women with—from reading interviews of yours, etc—your sort of no bullshit attitude, which I’m so thankful for. It takes a lot of guts to own up to your true talent in a Trump-led America.
SG: Thank you! The weird shitty thing about life that everyone tells you when you're young, but you never believe until you're older, is that it never really feels like that. Not for more than five minutes at a time. You might have a great moment and feel like you have some big success and you're a big fancy star, and then you open your browser and see ten people who are bigger, fancier stars. So you have to kind of know who you are and what you're about in life, or you're stuck in a race that no one will ever win. It can't be won because if you get to the top – well, I know people at the top, and many of them are lonely, or feel like their work is profitable, but not adequately respected, or they get stuck in a hall of mirrors of their own praise and lose their souls. All that being said, in 2004 I optioned my book COME CLOSER to the Weinstein Co (not knowing, of course, what we know now about the Weinsteins) for a nice piece of money and I was able to quit my day job and move away from Brooklyn – that was a big deal for me.
MT: Out of all of the books you’ve written—especially, of course—which was the hardest book you’ve had to write and was there ever a book you almost gave up on? With Claire, was there ever a book where you really struggled to find the answer to the mystery you’ve set up, or do you always have the mystery figured out before you even begin writing? Is the reason there are such large gaps between Claire books because of lack of time, with your incredibly busy schedule, or did you really struggle with this last book? The Infinite Blacktopis one of the most incredibly intricate and complicated yet satisfying books I’ve ever read, and with some authors this genius comes so quickly, but others struggle with getting everything just right.
SG: This book was the hardest I've ever written for sure – the book is vast and complex, my life has been vast and complex, my publishing company is also vast and complex. At this point in the series, just keeping track of the characters and their timelines and their relationships could be a full time job, although I worked very hard to make it understandable and digestible for the reader – hopefully all that work remains behind the curtain. I also don't see any reason at all to rush. I make most of my income writing for TV at this point, which gives me a lot of creative freedom with my books, so I want to take advantage of that and push myself as much as I can to do something worthwhile. Sometimes in life we need money or other things and we have to rush or compromise– I'm fortunate right now to be able to do that absolute best work I can, regardless of how long it takes.
MT: Were you aware that people would respond so positively to Claire and her novels? How does it make you feel that for so many writers and readers, not just me, Claire has made such a significant change in their lives? One of my former mentors gave me the advice, “Never give the reader what she wants,” and I was wondering what you thought of that—if you go into writing a Claire novel thinking of what the reader wants, or what Claire’s storyline needs?
SG: The response to these books has been probably the best thing to ever happen to me in my life after meeting my boyfriend in 1990-something and being born into a relatively peaceful, prosperous, home. I hear from people all the time how these books have affected them and I'm just floored by that. It makes everything else worthwhile to know that my work has been of service to people on that level. It's been a complete shock to me.
As for giving the reader what they want, I've given up any illusion of thinking I know what people need or want (myself included), so that no longer plays into my work at all. I just do the absolute best I can.
MT: Your fan base is huge. I’ve heard some people describe it as “cult-like” and, I guess, I’m one of the cult-like followers. I’ve always described the Claire DeWitt books as a sort of Harry Potterfor the private investigator genre. There are so many people in awe of your books, in the way you envisioned this large, personal, epic world with each story only adding onto the landscape of Claire’s story. Is this how you envisioned the stories taking shape, or was this just another private investigator series for you?
SG: My fan base is not so huge! But it is devoted, for which I am so grateful every day. I have the best, coolest, nicest, most generous fans on planet earth. I always know the series would be more about the detective than the cases, which I think is true of a lot of detective fiction. I definitely did not anticipate the series becoming this giant complex world that has basically taken over my life! This was something I never imagined for myself. It just kinda happened.
MT: One reason I’ve always referred to your series as the Harry Potter of private investigator series is all of the mythology that plays a role within the novel—from a book within a book, to the history of detectives you’ve created, as well as, featured heavily in this novel, the story of the junior detective who helped define Claire. Why is this mythology so important when creating this series and Claire?
SG: Because it's so fun to do! This really is the most fun in the world for me – spinning out these different worlds/stories/characters/mythologies. I do it all the time. I love working in H'wood because the projects are so small (compared to a book series), and so I get to create whole new worlds all the time, which is delightful.
MT: What is the importance to the order in which the books appear? They clearly, at least to me, have a very specific order and unraveling and telling in order to complete the entire series, but I’m wondering if you’d elaborate on this for other fans? If you can give away any of the series’ secrets, that is.
SG: I get the impression that my methods seems more deliberate and well-thought-out than they actually are – that's good to hear! The books are very much about intuition and being true to one's self, so I feel a moral obligation to make sure those are founding principles in writing the series as well (wouldn't it be shitty/dishonest/hypocritical to do otherwise?). The big narrative thrust that I'm trying to serve is not the cases, but this one person's (Claire's) change in time as a person – I was going to say "evolution," but that implies a very specific, positive change that rarely reflects reality.
MT: You do a lot of work with television and, if rumors are correct, movies. What’s the major differences between cinema and literature, and what do you prefer? Do you think Claire benefits most from a book series or a potential television series? Will we ever see Claire on the screen, and if you have to imagine one actress taking on the role of Claire, who might it be?
SG: Screenwriting is candy – fun, collaborative, pays well, usually leads to nothing. Writing a novel is a healthy meal – more challenging, not as fun, infinitely more satisfying and rewarding and nourishing. I used to make a living selling the options to my books, but after optioning this series a few times and seeing what it looked like after going through the H'wood machine, I decided to hold onto the rights until I either really need money, or am in a position of power lofty enough to ensure the translation to screen is exactly as I want it. Neither of those are likely to happen soon. Nearly everything good in my life has come to me through my books; I owe them a lot and it's important to me to honor that by protecting them.
MT: One of the most interesting aspects of the novel, The Infinite Blacktop, is the idea of “Who are you?” How we break down ourselves, find out who we are outside of everything we think may define us. How do you define yourself in these terms, and do you ever find yourself as an extension of Claire or any of your own personality, etc, leaking over into Claire? An example I think of is how so many people have said Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of Gilmore Girls) clearly modeled Lorelai Gilmore in her image. Do you ever think of Claire in the same light?
SG: I think that most writers have a central question or conflict they keep coming back to in their work. I have two concepts I keep returning to, even when I don't know I'm doing it. First is: the world is not what you think it is. Second is: you do not know who you are. Identity of self and definition of reality are huge things for me. I'm not sure why. I like them, though – they continue to be interesting, worthwhile questions for me in my life and my work.
The relationship between an author and her characters is strange. Claire and I have a lot in common but some substantial differences, too. Of course I create the character, but the character influences me, as well – what I write needs to be true to the character, and often elucidates some aspect of myself or of life.
MT: I always ask writers this question, a quote that’s been attributed to a lot of different writers—it’s often attributed to Toni Morrison, among other writers, but essentially the quote is something like “Write the book you’ve always wanted to read but never been able to find.” Do you feel you’ve written this book, or do you think it’s already written, or do you feel that this book is still to come for you?
SG: This book is close to that book! If I were smarter I would have written that book by now. I'm coming close.
MT: I’m very much in shock that I have gotten the chance to interview theSara Gran, but here is the interview, and here it comes to a close. Sara, I am so thankful you’ve spoken to me at all, better yet granted me an interview. I’m even more thankful that you—in any and all of your forms of writing—have helped me get through some of the hardest times in my life. You and your immense, immeasurable talent is something that I am so incredibly thankful for. Thank you for speaking with me, and if you have any thoughts or comments, questions or suggestions, please feel free to let me know. Thank you again. I am so, so grateful.
SG: Thank you Matthew for the kind words and the great questions!
So, Joe Hill (The Man Who Changed My Life) Stopped By and Had a Few Things to Say About Writing, Books, and Just Everything
I don't know that I've ever prefaced an interview before in the history of this website, but I do think it is necessary to note that this is "the" Joe Hill, the man who, along with Megan Abbott, "Alex Marwood," and Laura Lippman, helped change the direction of my life--mainly with his novel NOS4A2, but really, read everything he's written, honestly. I really hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did, and much thanks to Mr. Hill for answering these questions.
Matthew Turbeville: This is really pretty much a dream come true. I have loved your books for years—and even though while I was tempted to get into your earlier novels, it was NOS4A2 that eventually swept me away and changed my life. We’ll get to NOS4A2 in a bit, but first I just want to ask some basic questions. How did you get your start in writing? What was the very first thing you wrote, and what route did you take to get to where you are now, which is pretty much worldwide acclaim?
Joe Hill: Matt, thanks. You’re too kind.
At this point, it’s not much of a secret that I come from a family of writers. It’s not just my Dad – my mom is a damn fine novelist in her own right. I remember when I was twelve, I’d get home from school, my mother would be in her office, battering away at this tomato colored IBM electric typewriter that shivered like it had palsy. My Dad would be in his office working on his Wang Word Processor. With its eight-ball black screen and scifi green letters, that thing just looked like the future.
At a certain point I came to feel like that was what you were supposed to do with your day. You were supposed to sit in a room by yourself, and make things up, and eventually someone would pay you a lot of money for it. Which actually turned out to be true. So I guess I wrote my first novel when I was – fourteen? I think? It was, no surprise, a horror novel. It was titled Midnight Eats, and it was about cafeteria ladies making hamburger out of difficult students at a prep school. I really haven’t developed much as a writer, have I?
As for the route I took – I think it would best be described as “circuitous.” I was a very insecure kid. My dad is my idol: aside from being one of the most distinctive voices ever to come along in American letters, he’s also a great father. But I was afraid to be out there, recognized as his son. I worried that I’d write a lousy novel, and it would get published anyway, because a publisher saw a chance to make a quick buck in a famous last name. And that’s no good. That’s no way to build a long career. I needed to know, for myself, that when I sold a story, it sold for the right reasons, because it was good, not because I was Stephen King’s son.
So I stopped writing as Joseph King, started writing as Joe Hill, and began my collection of rejection letters. My plan to do it the hard way almost worked too well. I wrote four novels I could never sell, and came pretty close to calling it quits. Really the only reason I didn’t hang it up was because Marvel Comics bought an 11-page Spider-Manstory I had scripted. I figured if Marvel was willing to let me write Spidey, I must not be a complete no-talent.
Over the years, I sold some stories, got in a couple best of anthologies, and eventually placed a collection with a respected but small U.K. press. And in the process I learned my craft and got comfortable in my own skin. Eventually it came out about my family, but by then I had learned a couple things and built up my courage. It wasn’t a bad apprenticeship.
MT: You’ve written novels, short stories, novellas, graphic novels, and screenplays. Maybe more than that even. I can barely wrap my mind around working in one medium, so I have to ask: how do you manage so many different forms of writing and so successfully? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or are you strictly by the book and stick to one work at a time?
JH: The last answer was long, so I’ll make this one a bit briefer. I used to juggle two projects at once: a prose work in the morning, a comic in the evening. Most of Locke & Keywas written while juggling other projects. Nowadays, though, I try and stay focused on just one thing at a time. That turns out to be more productive.
I do feel that shifting between forms is a bit like the principal of crop rotation. After writing a novel, the field has been harvested for long prose fiction, and it’s time to plant something else, to revitalize the soil. So I’ll do a comic.
Also, I learned skills writing comics – things about pacing, about timing the reveal – that made me a better novelist. My work as a novelist helped me develop as a short story writer. One challenge helps build the skills to face the next.
MT: Your first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, has admittedly one of the most interesting and strangest concepts I’ve ever encountered, and it works so completely. This makes me ask one of the biggest questions: where do your ideas originate, how long do you let them simmer before they take shape and form into the work you eventually present to the world? Heart-Shaped Box—which, really, like all of your other works—is such an interesting and incredibly innovative idea, and I know our readers are wondering where stories like these come from.
JH: This is probably going to sound depressingly mercantile, but in genre fiction, the sale is made with the elevator pitch. “The hook” is what gets the publisher and the reader alike, and learning how to deliver one is an important skill. So: “Man buys a ghost on the internet.” Or the pitch for NOS4A2: “Man owns a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline.” The Fireman: “a pandemic that kills people by spontaneous combustion spreads across the world, setting cities alight and burning hospitals to the ground.”
Tell you a secret, though. The hook isn’t that important. Readers fall in love with characters, not high concepts. The high concept gets them through the door, but the characters are what persuade them to stay. I think Heart-Shaped Boxworks, not so much because of the idea, but because the lead character, Judas Coyne, interests us. He’s this graying heavy metal musician who’s had it all – he’s made videos, played arenas, had platinum albums. And yet he’s angry and isolated and unsatisfied and why is that? Heart-Shaped Boxis really a mystery… not a whodunnit, but a whoishe? How did Judas Coyne wind up like he is, and is there any hope for him? It took about 300 pages to answer those questions.
MT: I am going to make a pretty blunt statement: With rare exceptions, I rarely read straight white men. And yet the women you write about are created with such clarity and complexity that you defy any preconceived notions I might have about you. Take Vic McQueen for example. In NOS4A2 we, the reader, get to see Vic transform through her whole life. Eventually she becomes a mother and a warrior, a lover and a woman hell-bent on defending anything that is hers. With all of your female characters, and with Vic in general, how do you tap into the mind of a sex separate from your own to create a character that does not stay stuck on the page but is completely alive?
JH: I’m reading this book by Yuval Harari, called Sapiens, and at one point he writes that most “of the laws, norms, rights and obligations that define manhood and womanhood reflect human imagination more than biological reality.” I think that’s right. Being a man or a woman in this society – as in any society – is to participate in a cultural story. You accept that story, or you resist it, to varying degrees. I do feel it’s at least partly my job to figure out what makes stories tick, to understand them from the inside as best as I can.
If you’re going to write someone different from yourself, you try to do the homework, you recognize that people are individuals, not categories, and you accept you’ll never get it completely right. But it seems to me it’s important to try. Fiction is built on the promise that we can imagine our way out of our own skin, our own sexuality, our own experience, at least for a few pages. If the solipsists are right – if you can never understand anything but yourself, if we’re all hopelessly confined to our particular identity – then we all might as well stop reading books.
Maybe I’m being too intellectual. Here’s a simpler answer: writing gives me a chance to stop being myself for a couple hours every day. The older I get, the more of a relief it is to take off my Joe Hill suit and be someone else for a while: Vic McQueen or John Rookwood or Honeysuckle Speck. I’m boring and they aren’t.
MT: Speaking of women, you dedicate NOS4A2to your mother, who seems to have been one of your greatest inspirations ever. Including but not limited to other writers, what women have had the greatest impact on your life, and how do you feel they’ve shaped you in a way to enable you to create a character as alive as Vic McQueen?
JH: My wife is everything to me. She’s my calm place; my good sense; she forgives me when I can’t forgive myself; she helps me find my way home when I’m lost in the thicket. Also – and this is almost trivial compared to the rest of it – she’s one of the finest editors in the business and makes me look like a much better writer than I really am.
I was married previously, to one of the most tough-minded, funniest, and insightful people I’ve ever met. Our marriage didn’t work out – we were better at being friends than being a married couple – but we raised three pretty great kids together anyway.
Every single one of the books has been shaped by the fierce intelligence of Jennifer Brehl, who has been the guiding hand behind a really ridiculous number of successful novelists. I guess Hornsis my best known book, but let me tell you – the first draft was an unintelligible crapfest. Jen Brehl willedthat book into its final, much more successful form.
I’ve been surrounded by intelligent, keen-eyed, and witty women my whole life. My mother’s side of the family, the Spruces, is dominated by aggressively brilliant, Scrabble-playing, bullshit-calling women. As a reader, I’ve learned so much from the craft of writers like J.K. Rowling, Kate Atkinson, Laurie Colwin, Ruth Rendell, and, most recently, the astonishing Ali Smith. I’m still an amateur – I still have so much to discover. I’m the lifelong beginner.
MT: I started my own writing career as a screenwriter, but upon reading NOS4A2 and seeing how cinematic prose can be while, at the same time, layer the world you create with so much more complexity, I actually decided to change paths and pursue a former dream of mine: being a novelist. In the scene where—and I’ll try to avoid major spoilers here—Vic McQueen’s most precious possession is taken from her, and she is beaten pretty brutally—it’s all so visual. Every scene from the book ropes the reader in and the reader becomes a part of the book’s world, which is a steady evolution I’ve observed as you’ve moved from book to book. Can you talk to us about how NOS4A2 came into being, and how long of a road it was before you not only developed the characters and story, but also the style in which you could wholly absorb the reader?
JH: That’s a curiously hard question to answer. I’ve written four novels and it’s still a mystery to me how novels get made. With NOS4A2it was something like this:
One day I saw an old sleek silver car with a vanity plate: OLGHOST or something like that. And I started to think about a car that ran on souls instead of gas, a car that provides its driver with a certain immortality.
Then, a few months later, my iTunes was playing music on random, and a Christmas song came up in the middle of a hot July afternoon. It was so out of place it made my arms crawl with gooseflesh.
Around the same time, a friend drafted me to help rebuild his old 60s era Triumph motorcycle, and I sort of fell in love with the oily, battered, rusty ol’ machine.
And all these things added up, a little drip-drip of ideas that gradually piled into a novel.
As for my style, I think I’ve already noted I’m insecure. I’m always afraid of the reader getting bored and putting the book down and never picking it up again. We live in distracted times. There’s just so much out there: Netflix and Twitter and Xbox. Over time I’ve come to believe the only way to keep people reading is to put them in suspense as fast as possible and keep them there; pile it on if possible. You don’t look away when someone is crawling out along a ledge ten stories up, in a high wind, to reach a stranded kitten. I get my hero out on the ledge as fast as possible, and then the kitten turns around and claws him across the face.
As a side note, I also thought about being a screenwriter for a while, and I also changed my mind after reading a novel that lit my imagination on fire. In my case it was Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses.
MT: Your last major novel was The Fireman. You’ve followed it with Strange Weather, a series of novellas. These are two very different works, and to come back to back it’s interesting to see how rapidly you can switch from one mode to the other. How do you decide what story needs to be told, how to tell it, and when to deliver that story to your reader?
JH: In some ways, I just felt like after two 700+ page novels, it was time to get short again, to practice economy.
But that suggests I made a conscious choice, and I really didn’t. I wrote “Snapshot” while I was on tour for NOS4A2. I was sick of my phone and wanted to do something creative, so I bought a notebook and started writing. And the story just kind of gushed out. NOS4A2was like a seismic event and “Snapshot” was the aftershock. And the same pattern repeated itself with “Aloft,” which was written immediately after I finished the first draft of The Fireman. I wrote The Firemanlonghand in seven notebooks. When I finished, there was still about half a blank notebook left… just enough space for a novella. And that’s how it went. I’d finish a big job, then turn to a smaller one, and eventually I wound up with this quartet of very short novels.
MT: Your work encompasses so many genres, but you often remain true to your horror roots. I could be wrong here, but to me, the thing that seems scariest about both your protagonists and your villains is how you are able to let each character inhabit the human spectrum completely. We have empathy and understanding juxtaposed with villainy, creating truly complex characters who inhabit most of your work. That’s one aspect of your writing which truly scares me. One writer introduced your collection 20thCentury Ghostsby saying your true art is remaining subtle in everything you do. What do youthink is the real secret to scaring people so intensely?
JH: A lot of people believe horror fiction is about the gross out, about blasting the audience with a firehose of gore. I’ve got nothing against a firehose of gore… go ahead and paint the town red, that’s my view.
But at bottom, successful scary fiction is about empathy. You find a few characters you love and that the reader will love. Characters you want to linger with, people who make you laugh, who make you happy. Then you hang them over a woodchipper. Horror is about seeing people you care about face the worst, confront the darkest stuff life can throw at a person, and hoping with all your heart they’ll pull through.
The better question is whydo people get addicted to those kinds of stories? You could write a book on that subject – except someone already has. A Danish literary theorist named Mathias Clasen covered it in Why Horror Seduces, easily the most important survey of the genre since Danse Macabre.
MT: As mentioned, you often write horror stories, or works that deal with horror. What’s the scariest book and scariest movie you’ve ever seen? Is there any genre you haven’t tried yet that you’d be interested in trying out?
JH: I think we’re living through the scariest movie ever made right now: the most powerful nation in the history of the world, with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, is now ruled by an ignorant sociopath with all the self-control of a hyper fifth grader and the personal ethics of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
Ahem, excuse me. Let me try that question again.
Scariest book: I’ve got a couple candidates. Sometimes when I’m asked this question, I say The Collectorby John Fowles. Other times I say ITby my da’. Both answers are true. The Haunting of Hill Houseis also the scariest book I’ve ever read. I’m allowed to have a three-way tie, right? Peter Straub’s Ghost Storyand Susan Hill’s Woman In Blackfeel like they’re in the ring too.
Scariest movie: Of this century? Either It FollowsorHereditary. Of the last century? Probably The Exorcist, although if you wanted to argue for John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’d be open to that. That said, the two most importanthorror films ever are the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In this case, “important” is defined by influence.
What other genres would I like to try? I don’t feel like I have any say over it. My subconscious just throws the next ball and I run after it like a trained dog. Whatever genre that is, that’s what I’m writing.
MT: We all know by now which of your books is my favorite, and it’s not something I’m ashamed to admit. I think any true fan of any artist in any medium has a favorite. Which of your novels or stories or novellas, etc, are you most proud of and fond of, and why? When you wrote your first book, and in attempting to get it published, what was the most difficult hurdle you had to overcome?
JH: I think fondly on just about all of ‘em. I have a hard time looking at HORNS– I got divorced and had a nervous breakdown while I was writing that book. That was the hardest, biggest hurdle of my life. I just didn’t know if I could finish another novel. I knew one thing: I’d rather be a one novel writer, than follow Heart-Shaped Boxwith something that sucked.
Here’s how I got the book written, in the end. A friend let me stay in an unfurnished cottage – literally nothing in the entire place except a desk and a chair. And every day I’d sit there with a copy of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce. And I would slowly, carefully, copy two or three pages of his book. It was like I was learning how to write sentences all over again, like I was coming back from a mild stroke. After I had copied a couple pages, I was warmed up, and then I’d turn to Hornsand start working on that. And gradually, stubbornly, the story showed me where it wanted to go. Eventually, when I was about halfway through, I no longer needed Elmore Leonard to help me along.
Oddly, I don’t think Hornsreads anything like an Elmore Leonard novel. But I’m not sure. I can’t bear to reread it. I’m proud ofHorns, and I’m so, so glad it found an audience and people enjoy it. But it just makes me sad… looking at it reminds me of how unhappy I was when I wrote it. I wildly prefer the movie. I’d take Daniel Radcliffe acting his heart out over my novel six times a week and twice on Sundays.
MT: There’s a quote attributed to many different famous authors, mostly about writing the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. I ask a lot of authors this question, as it’s one of the most interesting questions to me. Do you think you’ve written the book you’ve always wanted to read and have never found, and if so, which novel or story or novella would that be?
JH: There are a lot of books I’d love to have written: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The House With A Clock In Its Walls, Watership Down, The Song of Achilles. But I can’t write anyone else’s books, only my own. And my own are never the books I hoped I’d write. They’re always a surprise to me.
MT: You’re also famous for writing the Locke & Keygraphic novels. How long have you been a fan of graphic novels, what are your favorite graphic novels, and how did this opportunity present itself to you? What about this storyline made you decide that it had to be presented in this form as opposed to all the other forms you’ve written in, and would you say that writing a graphic novel is more or less challenging than, say, a novel?
JH: Aside from my parents, as a kid, and as a young man, the writers who mattered the most to me were all comic book writers, and mostly British: Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, non-Brit Frank Miller. Chris Clairmont presented a world of profound diversity – racial, sexual, religious – and I fell in love with it and wanted to live in that world myself. I just always had a very comic book imagination. Several of my stories – “Pop Art”, “Aloft” – feel to me almost like comic books without pictures. And I often point out that I was a comic book writer myself before I was a novelist.
Locke & Keystarted as a comic book pitch. It never even crossed my mind to attempt it as a novel. I offered to Marvel first. They passed on it – but I didn’t. I daydreamed about the thing for two years, coming up with new keys, developing new ideas about the house. By the time I offered it to IDW, I had a pretty good foundation in place. Then I began working with Gabriel Rodriguez, who brought Keyhouse and Lovecraft, Massachusetts, to incredible life. I knew the history of the house; I knew what the keys could do; but I didn’t know who my heroes were until Gabe showed them to me. I learned as much about the characters from the way he drew them as he did from anything I wrote about them. It’s important to remember that Gabe and I told that story together. It’s not mine. It’s ours. As a random aside, Gabe designed my wedding ring (and oddly shares the same initials as my wife’s name, before she took mine).
At least for me, writing comics is much easier than writing novels. I feel more comfortable writing comics than I do anything else – more sure of my footing, more in control of the story. I’ve heard Neil Gaiman say the same thing.
MT: One question that’s always bothered me and several of my readers, many of your fans, is the issue of how a true artist develops and where a great writer might come from. I myself come from a place called Hogeye, S.C., and am one of these people wondering if I truly have a place in the writing community when none of my ancestors (to my knowledge) were writers or scholars or artists of any sort. Other than your parents, were any of your grandparents or ancestors before artists? Where do you think the true ability to write, and write well, comes from?
JH: If you love to write, if sometimes you can get down a sentence or a scene that excites you, one that flashes through your imagination like a stroke of lightning – then you’ve got it in you to be a writer of some sort, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your parents or grandparents did. For myself, I write first as a kind of conscious, meditative practice. I do it to know myself, to know my own mind. Hammering out a clean, precise sentence makes me a better thinker. Imagining my way into other people’s lives helps me to understand the world. If you write, and it makes you happy, and helps center you, then it’s worth doing, regardless of any external success. Or anyway, that’s what I think.
As for whether or not you have the natural talent to be a writer – I think it’s much more unusual to have no talent at all. Most people have a little bit of an ear for music; a sense for how to tell a story or a joke; an ability to recognize a striking image. The only way to find out how far your talent can take you is to patiently develop it, with a bit of good humor and as little ego as possible.
MT: I’m sure all of our readers are dying to know just as much as I am what’s next for you. I’ve seen a few projects rumored, but I’m wondering if you’ll confirm any future novels or other projects in the coming years? With the hell this country is going through, we could certainly use some more Joe Hill in our lives.
JH: You’re very, very kind.
The Firemanwas a big epic novel. I followed it with a book of four novellas. Next will be another 20thCentury Ghostsstyle collection: a book of ten stories. I’m the incredible shrinking writer! I’ll probably follow that with my first ever book of haiku.
It looks like I’ll be getting back into comics in a heavy kind of way for a couple years, too. But I’m not allowed to give any details on that, not yet.
MT: Speaking of the hell our country is going through, just hypothetically, if you could give the president one of your books to read (and assuming he would actually read the work) what would that be? What would you hope he would take away from the work? What about novels or collections or any works by any other authors? What do you think the president needs to read most now, at this point in our nation’s history?
JH: Waste of a time. I doubt he’s ever read a book in his life. Sincerely. The only thing he needs to read the articles of impeachment, on his way out the door.
I hope any of your right-leaning readers won’t think I’m utterly against all conservatives. I think there have been several really admirable folks on the right: the late John McCain and the eccentric and irascible Bill Weld to name two. I just don’t think any political party ought to play footsie with a wanna-be autocrat who treats women with such degrading contempt and who seems so inclined to cozy up to crooks.
MT: Your novels have changed lives. Your stories and novellas and graphic novels and anything else you’ve even scribbled down has likely changed countless lives. I know that must feel great, and I just want to personally thank you for contributing so much to the world through your art. I’ve taken up enough of your time, but thank you so much for stopping long enough to answer a few questions. If you’d like, feel free to leave any comments, questions, thoughts, or ideas as we close. Thank you so much, Joe. This has been an immense pleasure.
JH: Oh my goodness. Thank you. I wish you the very best of luck with your own work. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.